When one party becomes detached from reality.
In a recent Monmouth University survey, 77 percent of Trump backers said Joe Biden had won the presidential election because of fraud. Many of these same people think climate change is not real. Many of these same people believe they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality. Moreover, this is not just an American problem. All around the world, rising right-wing populist parties are floating on oceans of misinformation and falsehood. What is going on?
Many people point to the internet — the way it funnels people into information silos, the way it abets the spread of misinformation. I mostly reject this view. Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?
My analysis begins with a remarkable essay that Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch pointed out that every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.
This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. “We let alt-truth talk,” Rauch said, “but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.”
Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.
While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.
People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.
People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers. The evangelists of distrust, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon, rose up to give them those stories and provide that community. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.
For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.
Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.
What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.
Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.
Even with a new president and political party soon in charge of the White House, the nation’s economic standoff continues. Notwithstanding President-elect Joe Biden’s solid popular vote victory, last week’s election failed to deliver the kind of transformative reorientation of the nation’s political-economic map that Democrats (and some Republicans) had hoped for. The data confirms that the election sharpened the striking geographic divide between red and blue America, instead of dispelling it.
Most notably, the stark economic rift that Brookings Metro documented after Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory has grown even wider. In 2016, we wrote that the 2,584 counties that Trump won generated just 36% of the country’s economic output, whereas the 472 counties Hillary Clinton carried equated to almost two-thirds of the nation’s aggregate economy.
A similar analysis for last week’s election shows these trends continuing, albeit with a different political outcome. This time, Biden’s winning base in 477 counties encompasses fully 70% of America’s economic activity, while Trump’s losing base of 2,497 counties represents just 29% of the economy. (Votes are still outstanding in 110 mostly low-output counties, and this piece will be updated as new data is reported.)
Table 1. Candidates’ counties won and share of GDP in 2016 and 2020
Year Candidate Counties won Total votes Aggregate share of US GDP 2016 Hillary Clinton 472 65,853,625 64% Donald Trump 2,584 62,985,106 36% 2020 Joe Biden 477 75,602,458 70% Donald Trump 2,497 71,216,709 29%
Note: 2020 figures reflect unofficial results from 96% of counties
Source: Brookings analysis of data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, The New York Times, and Moody’s Analytics
So, while the election’s winner may have changed, the nation’s economic geography remains rigidly divided. Biden captured virtually all of the counties with the biggest economies in the country (depicted by the largest blue tiles in the nearby graphic), including flipping the few that Clinton did not win in 2016.
By contrast, Trump won thousands of counties in small-town and rural communities with correspondingly tiny economies (depicted by the red tiles). Biden’s counties tended to be far more diverse, educated, and white-collar professional, with their aggregate nonwhite and college-educated shares of the economy running to 35% and 36%, respectively, compared to 16% and 25% in counties that voted for Trump.
In short, 2020’s map continues to reflect a striking split between the large, dense, metropolitan counties that voted Democratic and the mostly exurban, small-town, or rural counties that voted Republican. Blue and red America reflect two very different economies: one oriented to diverse, often college-educated workers in professional and digital services occupations, and the other whiter, less-educated, and more dependent on “traditional” industries.
With that said, it would be wrong to describe this as a completely static map. While the metropolitan/ nonmetropolitan dichotomy remained starkly persistent, 2020 election returns produced nontrivial movement, as Biden added modestly to the Democrats’ metropolitan base and significantly to its vote base. Most notably, Biden flipped seven of the nation’s 100 highest-output counties, strengthening the link between these core economic hubs and the Democratic Party. More specifically, Biden flipped half of the 10 most economically significant counties Trump won in 2016, including Phoenix’s Maricopa County; Dallas-Fort Worth’s Tarrant County; Jacksonville, Fla.’s Duval County; Morris County in New Jersey; and Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.’s Pinellas County.
Altogether, those losses shaved about 3 percentage points’ worth of GDP off the economic base of Trump counties. That reduced the share of the nation’s GDP produced by Republican-voting counties to a new low in recent times.
Why does this matter? This economic rift that persists in dividing the nation is a problem because it underscores the near-certainty of both continued clashes between the political parties and continued alienation and misunderstandings.
To start with, the 2020’s sharpened economic divide forecasts gridlock in Congress and between the White House and Senate on the most important issues of economic policy. The problem—as we have witnessed over the past decade and are likely to continue seeing—is not only that Democrats and Republicans disagree on issues of culture, identity, and power, but that they represent radically different swaths of the economy. Democrats represent voters who overwhelmingly reside in the nation’s diverse economic centers, and thus tend to prioritize housing affordability, an improved social safety net, transportation infrastructure, and racial justice. Jobs in blue America also disproportionately rely on national R&D investment, technology leadership, and services exports.
By contrast, Republicans represent an economic base situated in the nation’s struggling small towns and rural areas. Prosperity there remains out of reach for many, and the party sees no reason to consider the priorities and needs of the nation’s metropolitan centers. That is not a scenario for economic consensus or achievement.
At the same time, the results from last week’s election likely underscore fundamental problems of economic alienation and estrangement. Specifically, Trump’s anti-establishment appeal suggests that a sizable portion of the country continues to feel little connection to the nation’s core economic enterprises, and chose to channel that animosity into a candidate who promised not to build up all parts of the country, but rather to vilify groups who didn’t resemble his base.
If this pattern continues—with one party aiming to confront the challenges at top of mind for a majority of Americans, and the other continuing to stoke the hostility and indignation held by a significant minority—it will be a recipe not only for more gridlock and ineffective governance, but also for economic harm to nearly all people and places. In light of the desperate need for a broad, historic recovery from the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic, a continuation of the patterns we’ve seen play out over the past decade would be a particularly unsustainable situation for Americans in communities of all sizes.
In a time of heightened political tension, Jonathan Haidt has a good idea of what’s driving this polarized atmosphere around the world. He is a social psychologist who believes social media has transformed in recent years to become an “outrage machine,” spreading anger and toxicity. He sits down with Hari to discuss this difficult problem and what the possible solutions could be.
Chamath Palihapitiya, the CEO of Social Capital and chairman of Virgin Galactic, talks about a wide range of issues, including Bitcoin, COVID, civil unrest, and broad economic trends and forecasts. We discuss:
- Whether his economic forecasts have shifted throughout COVID
- Why he believes a debt crisis will occur
- How he views the success of BTC as a hedge against the ruling class
- How the economic pendulum will swing back toward consumers
- Why he doesn’t mind if big corporations and hedge funds get wiped out
- Whether he subscribes to the thesis that Bitcoin is uncorrelated
- Why the pandemic has not spurred institutional adoption of crypto
- Why he sees no merit in Ethereum
- How the economy will become more decentralized in the future and whether blockchain will be a part of it
- Why he prefers SPACs over ICOs
- Why he started capital as a service
- Why he believes the government should bust up large corporations
The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment that tests children’s willingness to delay gratification. Children are offered a marshmallow, but told that they can have a second marshmallow if they’re willing to wait 15 minutes before eating the first one. Claims that children with the willpower to hold out do much better in life haven’t held up well, but the experiment is still a useful metaphor for many choices in life, both by individuals and by larger groups.
One way to think about the Covid-19 pandemic is that it poses a kind of marshmallow test for society.
At this point, there have been enough international success stories in dealing with the coronavirus to leave us with a clear sense of what beating the pandemic takes. First, you have to impose strict social distancing long enough to reduce the number of infected people to a small fraction of the population. Then you have to implement a regime of testing, tracing and isolating: quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed, and quarantining them until the danger is past.
This strategy is workable. South Korea has done it. New Zealand has done it.
But you have to be strict and you have to be patient, staying the course until the pandemic is over, not giving in to the temptation to return to normal life while the virus is still widespread. So it is, as I said, a kind of marshmallow test.
And America is failing that test.
New U.S. cases and deaths have declined since early April, but that’s almost entirely because the greater New York area, after a horrific outbreak, has achieved huge progress. In many parts of the country — including our most populous states, California, Texas, and Florida — the disease is still spreading. Overall, new cases are plateauing and may be starting to rise. Yet state governments are moving to reopen anyway.
This is a very different story from what’s happening in other advanced countries, even hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain, where new cases have fallen dramatically. It now looks likely that by late summer we’ll be the only major wealthy nation where large numbers of people are still dying from Covid-19.
Why are we failing the test? It’s easy to blame Donald Trump, a man-child who would surely gobble down that first marshmallow, then try to steal marshmallows from other kids. But America’s impatience, its unwillingness to do what it takes to deal with a threat that can’t be beaten with threats of violence, runs much deeper than one man.
It doesn’t help that Republicans are ideologically opposed to government safety-net programs, which are what make the economic consequences of social distancing tolerable; as I explain in today’s column, they seem determined to let crucial emergency relief expire far too soon. Nor does it help that even low-cost measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, above all wearing face masks (which mainly protect other people), have been caught up in our culture wars.
America in 2020, it seems, is too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship, to deal effectively with a pandemic. We have the knowledge, we have the resources, but we don’t have the will.
The coronavirus crisis once seemed to be the kind of gut-wrenching shock that would pull together a politically divided nation. Increasingly, though, it is pulling the nation apart along familiar lines.
To see why, start by looking at how the pandemic’s effects are falling along partisan lines, leaving people on both sides of the red/blue divide now feeling they are bearing unfair burdens.
Political power in the country’s states today is almost evenly split between the two parties: 26 have Republican governors, 24 have Democratic governors. Yet the coronavirus’s effects aren’t even close to falling evenly between red and blue states.
Two-thirds of confirmed coronavirus cases are in states with Democratic governors. When states are measured by the sheer number of coronavirus cases, six of the top seven have Democratic governors. Together, those six blue states have about half of the nation’s cases, though only about a third of its population.
Coronavirus deaths tell a similar story. Eight of the nine states with the most deaths due to the virus are states with Democratic governors. When measured by deaths per capita, eight of the top nine states also have Democratic governors.
Obviously, the virus isn’t picking partisan sides. It moves without regard to borders or political affiliation. It just happens that more of the blue states have densely populated metro areas, heavily used mass transit systems and colder climates, which help the virus spread more easily. In some cases, they also have older populations more vulnerable to it.
These aren’t partisan distinctions. Massachusetts with its Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has been hit as hard as its Northeastern neighbors.
Nor are the state-by-state discrepancies necessarily a sign of how well or how badly governors are handling the outbreak. Certainly some will be judged to have acted better than others, but mostly they are dealing the hand that nature and the gods of disease handed them.
Inevitably, though, this uneven distribution of disease has led to uneven political reactions about its burden. Red states feel they are being hit harder than justified by a national economic shutdown that, to them, simply feels more acute than the problem it is addressing. It’s no surprise, then, that the debate over how quickly to reopen the economy is both an emotional one, and is falling along partisan lines.
“A red-state governor is losing his business in exchange for blue-state lives,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at a Brookings Institution seminar last week. “So for him, opening up is a no-brainer, which is sort of why it is happening.”
He added: “It is a lot to ask those governors to kill their businesses and their GDP for people who live far away, and who they may not even like very much.”
At the same time, blue-state leaders are starting to feel that, despite all the “we’re all in this together” sentimentality heard early in the crisis, that feeling isn’t prevailing today—particularly not in the U.S. Senate.
The states hit hardest by the virus are suffering the double whammy of lost tax revenues as economic activity grinds to a halt as well as skyrocketing costs for health care. These states’ finances, obviously, are being hit hardest, and they are seeking more help from Washington to cope, on top of billions of dollars Congress already has approved. And the Democratic-controlled House voted last Friday to do just that—to provide almost a trillion dollars more in a new aid package.
But that package is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, whose leadership has characterized additional aid as a “blue-state bailout” of badly run states and deeply indebted public pension programs in which they have little interest. At one point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that troubled states could simply declare bankruptcy.
And it’s in the Senate where the imbalance between coronavirus impact and political clout is most acute. Those six hardest-hit blue states have more than half the country’s coronavirus cases, and a third of its population—yet only 12% of the votes in the Senate. It is almost a perfect formula for political tensions.
President Trump is straddling this red and blue divide. In sheer political terms, two of the hardest-hit states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, are critical to him because they happen to be swing states he carried in the 2016 election.
The president “is absolutely open” to negotiating more aid for states, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said in an interview Friday. But, he added, “the one thing he has taken off the table is fixing old problems” with new aid.
Mr. Deaton notes that the splits may narrow if cases continue to grow in red states. But for now, the ideal world in which red and blue sympathize with each other may be slipping further away.