When (More Than) Two Tribes Go To War

At Contrarian Moderate, Ben writes about Will Wilkinson’s takedown of David Brooks.

The reason I link to this review, is that it doesn’t make any sense to analyze it through the lens of the conventional spectrum. Wilkinson is a libertarian-leaning moderate conservative. Brooks is a more populist moderate conservative. Ideology, that’s not too far distant. But Wilkinson is fiercely attacking , because he objects to the quality of the arguments presented. He’s calling out Brooks as a hack, an unthinking moderate conservative, or at least that he hasn’t thought through the ideas as well as Wilkinson has.

Ben thinks it makes more sense to analyse it by his own model of the political spectrum. I agree that politics is a mixture of ideology and tribalism, but my take on things is rather different.

Political tribes are not formed primarily by shared ideology. Rather, they are aggregations of social, cultural and interest groups. Moreover, political tribes are often not divided by differing ideologies, but by being on opposite sides of those social, cultural and self-interested divides. That is why so much of politics is symbolic, based around language and totems, rather than ideological, based around concepts and theories. And that is why the way a politician argues is so much more important to the tribe than the conclusions that come at the end of the argument. So, the American left does not hate Sarah Palin for her ideology (which appears unexceptional), but because she represents the wrong kind of symbolism.

But crucially, there are many tribes, not just the political parties. I think Moldbug does an excellent job identifying the tribes in the contemporary USA, and in the future I will try with England. And even within these tribes there are sub-divisions. The top-level political parties are not so much tribes as they are coalitions of tribes, and by that I do not just mean policy coalitions, but coalitions of language and symbolism. John Prescott and Peter Mandelson represent very similar policy positions, but are oceans apart in terms of language and symbols – which is why they are on opposite wings of the Labour Party, and attract very different tribes.

However, political parties cannot be merely tribal coalitions, need to cohere, with a programme, an agenda, and shared language and symbols – which will inevitably favour some tribes in the coalition above others. As a result, the tribes are perpetually battling for control, and there are winners and losers. The people who Ben describes as “Thinking” and “Contrarian” are frequently nothing of the sort – they are members of disappointed tribes within one of the coalitions, and every bit as partisan and unthinking as anyone else. For example, Dennis Skinner is a Contrarian Leftist according to Ben’s diagram. But people on the Right do not listen to him, because they’re not interested in the language and symbols of his tribe.

To understand the fight between Wilkinson and Brooks, you need to understand that Wilkinson’s tribe is not “Moderate Conservative,” it is “Brahmin.” He is basically a progressive who happens to think that progressive goals are best served with a freer market. For sure, this is a big political gap – which is why Wilkinson wants to build a liberaltarian coalition so he can hang out with the rest of his tribe, and avoid the psychic pain and social embarrassment the current political alignment causes. As Arnold Kling would say, he is more comfortable socially with Matt Yglesias than Glenn Beck. But it’s not a huge tribal gap, because he expresses his political goals in the language of progressivism. In particular, he takes a dim view of conservative social thought – “liberty is a fundamentally progressive cause.”

David Brooks really is a moderate Conservative, or at least his book is. It’s an expression of Optimate values, of tradition and ambition and excellence – so of course Wilkinson hates it, and launches a straight partisan attack on it. Brooks basically thinks 1950s America was a great time, and wants to go back there – but be nicer to blacks and gays. Wilkinson thinks 1950s America was a terrible time. So while Brooks thinks he’s written the “happiest story ever,” Wilkinson says the characters have “muted… emotionally straitened… more or less satisfactory lives in the successful pursuit of achievement as it is narrowly defined by their culture.” That’s more or less the entirety of their disagreement, which is why Wilkinson’s piece reads so similarly to the reviews by noted liberals Thomas Nagel and PZ Myers. Wilkinson’s tone is more polite, but there’s more than an echo of “die, yuppie scum, die.”

One of the things I find most fascinating is the way different people view “freedom” – it’s a tricky concept to represent symbolically. Matt Yglesias thinks freedom is booze and bicycles, and I think Will Wilkinson agrees, whereas David Brooks leans closer to the Tim Pawlenty advert. It’s straight tribalism, and to represent it as high-quality discourse seems very strange to me.


9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ben on March 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    FYI, I’m treating your reading of and linking to my blog as praise, even though this post reads like a takedown.

    I generally like the Moldbug post, although I’m concerned about his vague definition of his very large Vaisya caste. Working within this framing, I’ll grant that part of the reason I liked Wilkinson’s post is because I too fit the Brahmin mold fairly well. My gut reaction to your point about Yglesias and Beck was “who isn’t more comfortable with Yglesias than Beck?”, which is both a very Brahmin and obviously ignorant response.

    Of course, the very idea of high-quality discourse is valued more highly by Moldbug’s Brahmins than any other caste. So my pursuit of, and promotion of, what I consider to be interesting arguments, can be written off as tribalism. I believe members of different tribes have an obligation to engage with each other, to uncover the root of their differences, and to attempt, intellectually, to resolve them. To decry my ideal as tribalism is a fairly different line of criticism than to challenge tribal arguments with obvious logical weakness, and I’m reluctant to grant credence to the prior.


  2. Posted by Ben on March 22, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    One more note, in my diagram, I didn’t suggest that party-liners listen to contrarians from the opposite side. I don’t think hardcore Democrats read Andrew Sullivan or David Frum; they stick to DailyKos, HuffPost, and mabye Klein or Yglesias. Similarly, hardcore Republicans don’t read Ann Althouse or Mickey Kaus; they stick to RedState and Malkin, and maybe check out ___ (This is a tough category, as the hardcore right in the US is very insular, but maybe insert Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru, or right-leaning economists like Arnold Kling here).

    I do suggest that party-liners _should_ listen to contrarians and thinking critics, from both sides.


  3. […] I am Not, an occasional commenter here, writes about my favorite subject: me! Ben thinks it makes more sense to analyse it by his own model of the […]


  4. Posted by I am not... on March 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Hi Ben,

    My post was certainly not intended as a takedown! I enjoy your blog and think it’s very interesting, although I don’t agree with all of it.

    “High-quality discourse” is not exclusively a Brahmin thing. No-one says that they prefer low quality to high. But different tribes have different notions of what that means. I agree that different tribes have an obligation to engage – that’s essentially the test of whether a deliberative democracy is functioning – but engagement requires shared language and symbolism. To say that we must use Brahmin notions of high-quality discourse is therefore to refuse to engage.

    Party-line Democrats do not read Andrew Sullivan – agreed. But there are plenty of people on the American right who have been/are very critical of the right/Republicans, but thinking/contrarian leftists do not read, because of the way they criticise. My intention is to show the distinction between the thinking (eg Sowell) and the contrarian (eg Beck). The former can engage with the other side, and can be critical of his own side when it’s merited. The latter is willing to be even more critical of his own side, but cannot engage with the other side, he’s just engaged in a battle for control of his own side – and as he wins that battle, he simply becomes the party-line.


  5. Posted by Ben on March 23, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you, and likewise.

    So I’m clear, you’re suggesting that Glenn Beck is a contrarian conservative? My sense is that he’s a complete joke, that his arguments don’t reflect any coherent set of ideas, and are merely an attempt to win viewers. I don’t think he’s trying to reform the right in any viable way; rather, like Limbaugh, he’s simply found a way to earn a buck while doing immense damage to his alleged cause. Do you disagree?

    I get that I’m not his intended audience; I’m a Brahmin, and his arguments don’t resonate. I also get that his program is quite compelling to some. But I feel pretty confident dismissing Beck as engaging in discourse of the lowest quality, and not paying Beck the pundit much attention (Beck the celebrity, however, is somewhat important). He might not be party-line Republican, but he’s not bringing anything constructive to the conservative movement.

    In my diagram, I suppose I thought of contrarians as those who criticize from the opposite side of the spectrum, but also maintain an allegiance to their side. They express the opposing side’s arguments in the language of their own side. Does that help?


  6. […] I linked to a blog post that referred to a model I’d proposed to map the political spectrum.  In it, the author […]


  7. Posted by I am not... on March 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I agree that Beck is engaged in low-quality discourse, and is not bringing anything (much) constructive. But he’s also highly willing to criticise his own side. Your model has two axes: ideology, and likelihood to criticise his own side. Therefore, Beck MUST be contrarian conservative. There is no third axis of “quality” – which is hard to define anyway. I agree with you that it’s not worth listening to Beck – that’s kinda my point, that being willing to criticise your own side is not what gets you listened to by thinking people across the spectrum.

    Redefining “contrarian” as someone who expresses the other side’s arguments in the language of their own side is interesting – it gets a lot closer to the “tribal” model. But that would make Wilkinson a Contrarian Liberal, not a Contrarian Conservative. Ultimately I think it’s complicated, and I agree with your follow-up post about maps and territories.


  8. Posted by Ben on March 23, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Perfectly willing to grant that my model could use refinement, and it’s always interesting to explore edge cases.

    I’m willing to grant that Beck’s a contrarian conservative. In some sense, I probably prefer him to a Limbaugh or a Hannity, since his is a somewhat independent voice, if a crazy one.

    Wilkinson’s a trickier case; libertarians are generally. I’m tempted to call him a thinking moderate–he uses some liberal language, but rejects a lot of it also. (e.g. Labor union-ese) I’ll think it over and maybe write another follow-up.


  9. […] Why I am Not on tribal conflict. […]


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