Russ Roberts, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay

In last week’s podcast, she says,

what tends to happen is that, like, moderate Right-wingers will see the extremes of the Left and become convinced that this represents the Left. And that the whole of the Left has to be opposed drastically. This is an existential threat. And the moderate Left will do the same to the Right; and they will see the alt-Right [alternative Right] or the far Right as defining the Right. And so, when they are talking on social media, or when we’re reading analyses of politics, then we will hear, ‘The Left does this,’ and ‘The Right does that.’ As you saw, we had a little graphic in our essay, which just sort of demonstrates it, that these are the fringes. And most of the people in the middle in this graphic are saying ‘Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.’ Except that because of the existential–the perception of this existential threat right now, people are internalizing. They work the most faulty narratives of their own side in order to defend against what they see as the existentially dangerous threats on the other side.

Later, Lindsay puts it,

it became very fashionable to find the most extreme lunatic on the other side from your own, and then present them as if they are typical, in order to fear monger, or to whip up a base, or to radicalize. And this works. This has been–you know, I know that for instance Fox News got accused of it several years ago, of looking for the most lunatic liberal they could find, or to put a guy up there in the most–you know, bizarre, stereotypically, maybe almost hippie outfit there, or something–to say something crazy and then be like, ‘Well, there you go, Audience. This is what the Liberals look like and think.’ And this was, this is a form of not exactly journalism that I think has driven a lot of polarization.

This sounds a bit like Yuval Levin. That is, we have gravitated toward exaggerating the evils of the other side. This makes for apocalyptic thinking. This aggravates authoritarian tendencies on all sides.

I think that there are a lot of people out there who are not totally committed to one tribe or the other. The challenge in the United States today is that neither party wants to cater to that moderate majority. The intolerant wings of each party are ascendant, at least during primary season.

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15 Responses to Russ Roberts, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay

  1. Handle says:

    This sounds a bit like Yuval Levin. That is, we have gravitated toward exaggerating the evils of the other side.

    It does sound like Levin, because it’s based on the same fundamental error in diagnosis of what is really going on politically.

    It is perfectly legitimate to use extreme examples or even hypotheticals to explain and illustrate what will likely happen when some existing normative or legal arrangement is discarded and a new principle of public policy is acceded to. That’s what makes Dreher’s Law of Merited Impossibility true and confirmed by repeated observation. For example, the case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), whether or not it was explicitly admitted at the time, stands for the abolition of public morality as a basis for lawmaking. If someone 15 years ago has said (indeed, as Justice Scalia actually pointed out), “What this case means is that in 15 years every state will be under a requirement to perform gay-marriages, schools will be compelled to integrate biological males into female locker rooms and showers, and that judges will find a Constitutional right to adultery,” it would have seemed that one was going after an extremist caricature and indulging in paranoia about mandates that had no chance of coming into existence.

    But one would have been perfectly correct to point out that these results are precisely what the logic of progressive principles demand.

    Or consider highlighting some anti-smoking ‘extremist’ (i.e., ideologically consistent and principled advocate) two generations ago. “If we accept these kinds of restrictions on smoking in public, in no time at all, it will become practically impossible for anyone to smoke in any public place, which is just what this guy says he wants.” And so it came to pass, because completely consistent with the Nanny State principle of expert management of individual behaviors for their own good.

    Meanwhile, in the very nature of conservatives who mostly want things to stay as they are and have been for a long time, there is simply no parallel to these kinds of claims. What policies extending from generally agreed-upon principles shared by most people on “the right” are progressives worried about the right imposing upon them?

    Instead, what animates progressives in not a paranoia about being dominated by the policies which could arise out of the logical implications of conservative principles, but instead indulgence in a group libel that paints most people on the right as evil and/or ignorant bigots.

    So, bottom line, the attempts at drawing comparable parallels between both sides here, as if they are merely equal and opposite mirror images of the same unfortunate tribalist tendencies, is erroneous. Progressive principles have been in ascendance and an unstoppable juggernaut for most of American history and particularly in the last century.

    • Dain says:

      “Progressive principles have been in ascendance and an unstoppable juggernaut for most of American history and particularly in the last century…”


      Make America great again? Psh. It’s never been great. It’s been one big story of promoting progressivism. Especially the last century.

    • Weir says:

      How many progressives have principles? How many progressives are opposed to McCarthyism on principle, and not just when it’s convenient?

      There’s just Glenn Greenwald on his own. He didn’t suddenly stop being a critic of the surveillance state when it turned out that one party’s presidential campaign employed the FBI to spy on the other party’s presidential campaign.

      Democrats talk about omissions to the Nunes memo that might, hypothetically, have justified the wiretapping of Carter Page. The omissions that don’t bother them? Keeping the FISA judges in the dark about who bought and paid for Steele’s dossier. (On top of which, the FISA judges didn’t ask, either. Which ought to bother people who imagine themselves to be critics of the surveillance state.)

    • Thomas Boyle says:

      “What policies extending from generally agreed-upon principles shared by most people on “the right” are progressives worried about the right imposing upon them?”

      Substantial reductions in social safety nets
      Widespread presence of firearms (oh…)
      Phenomenally long prison sentences (um…)
      Military style policing (oh…)
      The death penalty (gee…)
      Involvement in large, completely unnecessary wars in places our leaders know nothing about (gosh…)
      Legal prohibition of abortion
      Legal prohibition of birth control (hey, you want to include extremes, but then you demand only ‘generally agreed-upon’?)
      Legal prohibition of recreational drugs, complete with paranoid and socially destructive policing straight out of the Great Depression (oh, that’s right, we already have that)
      Legal prohibition of gambling (oh, that’s right, we already have that)
      Legal penalties for sexual activity between consenting adults, in private (you brought it up)
      Legal prohibition of pornography (in fairness, leftist feminists like this one too)
      Legal prohibition of prostitution (oh…)
      Sanctification of the state (think everything from anti-flag-burning laws, to anti-sedition laws, to the furor over “taking the knee”)
      Prohibition of immigration (I know, some of your friends are immigrants, but immigrants “take American jobs”… Why don’t we teach basic econ instead of… almost anything, really?)
      Prohibition/heavy taxation of imports (I mean, we’ve known this is bad policy longer than we’ve had a country!)

      How’m I doing?

      Looking at the list, I can see why conservatives don’t want to change much. They already have most of their crazy, interventionist, can’t-mind-their-own-business policies.

      None of which justifies what the left is up to.

  2. Candide III says:

    If there were such symmetry between the Right taking extreme leftists as representative of the Left is different from vice-versa, how to explain the very different attitudes of the relative moderates on each side to their side’s extremists? Right-wing moderates regularly denounce and disavow as evil bigots, racists &c. the Alt-right, neoreactionary and other fringe or extremist rightists, and not much less (in fact often more) vehemently than the left-wingers do. It is rare to read a moderate Right-winger columnist or pundit or whoever actually defend his extremists. On the other side of the aisle, Left-wing moderates at worst talk about their extremists as misguided souls with their hearts in the right place; outright attacks are rare. Left-wing moderates may have come to feel uncomfortable about the speed and extent of change, but they don’t have any positive principle to wield against their extremists. (Exhibit: attempts to tar left-wing extremists together with right-wing extremists as “anti-Modernists” in this very podcast.) Whereas right-wing moderates are mostly just yesteryear’s left-wing moderates and have a panoply of principles to wield against extremist rightists. They have more in common ideologically with the moderate leftists than with right-wing extremists, who are lumped together as right-wing extremists only by virtue of their extreme distance from the center of goodness, not because they constitute some sort of united bloc or front. “Right-wing extremists” are just the point that is the image of infinity in left-wing stereographic projection.

  3. Richard Fulmer says:

    Threats go right to the top of people’s mental in-boxes (for obvious evolutionary reasons), and the media use this against us to get our attention. Could the endless headlines warning of Armageddon and the resulting escalation in “inter-tribal” warfare be viewed as a market failure? If so, can anything be done about it?

  4. edgar says:

    Not sure if the people “in the middle” are saying “shut up, shut up, shut up” or thinking for themselves and independently researching issues and analyzing policies in search of pragmatic alternatives to the status quo. Radicals but not necessarily extremists, forced to choose between Trump and Sanders as the only politicians who come close to evincing an authentic desire to upset cozy, but not necessarily optimal, arrangements in government.

    Eavesdropping on conversations at the little honky tonk where I do my drinking, I hear smart people who would be labeled as anti-intellectual, anti-expertise simply because they question authority figures and want to have a deeper understanding of what they are told they must believe. You get folks who have spent time in the service and seen the world, farmers who know what trade is about, public school teachers with a lot of experience in classrooms, truck drivers who spend a lot of time listening to books on tape, people who in short do not qualify as “cosmopolitan” or “classical libertarian” but for whom the internet has made it possible to question what they are being told about themselves and who can look stuff up for themselves. I think of them as neither left nor right nor in the middle but rather as radical pragmatists with a keen sense of smell for nonsense: hedgehogs who know the status quo is broke. Such independendents are probably a plurality of voters but are split by the two-party system. In the end, they will be won over by whomever respects their concerns with something more than blather. Their numbers will grow as more people tune out and turn on their web browser. They will reward good policy analysis and clear thinking. They will punish entitled elites who don’t respect them. Or at least that is what I hope is happening.

  5. collin says:

    A lot of this is true and both Presidential were moderate in most positions. Trump promised to protect Social Security and Medicare while Hillary was married to most centrist President in our lifetime. And looking at the 2016 vote totals, without any other political knowledge, the nation voted for split government. (Notice how governors went Republican with Obama and how popular most of them were.) Maybe we are seeing the reverse causation:

    1) Because the government (since Clinton 1994) has been very moderate between Republicans and Democrats, then our political rhetoric gets cranked up a notch. It is pretty boring to state that Social Security needs to use a specified CPI index.

    2) For an economist when all else fails, then blame the consumers for market changes. They consume media on their preferences to either agree with them or incite them. So I can’t understand how Fox News is not a MSM anymore as they have the highest ratings.

    3) The economy went through one of hell of a down cycle and that makes people crankier.

  6. collin says:

    This makes for apocalyptic thinking.

    Hasn’t all society had weakness for apocalyptic thinking? This is not new. We grew up (1950 -1991) of impending nuclear holocaust was always around the corner. And even in Medieval Europe the second of Christ was always happening in the next 2 years.

  7. Lord says:

    Appealing to fear gathers attention, but it is also too much to say there is a middle. There is the moderate left. There may be a moderate right, but they aren’t heard from, beyond congenital liars like Trump. Those that are heard from, Barlett, Frum, etc., are banished as traitors. Things change, the country changes, time moves on, and the right must be dragged, kicking and screaming into the future, even as they build echo chambers and propaganda outlets so they don’t have to face, much less confront it, and dream of resurrecting the confederacy.

  8. Dain says:

    I thought it interesting that (because they’re talking to Roberts) they claimed to have been unfair to Hayek in their article. I wonder if they’d claim to have been unfair to Foucault etc. if they were invited on to a podcast inspired by French intellectuals.

    It’s actually kind of telling that were invited on to a Hayekian’s podcast in the first place. What are the chances they’ll be invited to a Foucault-ian’s podcast? The answer to this would also help answer the question, “Why are most of the people complaining about the ‘politicization of everything’ on the right?”

  9. Weir says:

    The moderate majority within the Democratic Party is too right-wing for Chelsea Handler or Stephen Colbert. The intolerant fringe of the Democratic Party is over-represented on TV and online. You don’t have to go looking for Joy Behar. She’ll say something crazy if you never go looking for her in your life.

    There are millions of Democrats out there who are capable of self-reflection and dialing back their worst impulses, but they aren’t welcome on the editorial board of the New York Times. Columnists like Paul Krugman and Charles Blow are a permanent primary season, dragging the Democrats towards the rigidly intolerant, hyper-partisan fringe.

    TV Democrats have strong opinions about net neutrality. John Oliver thinks it’s the apocalypse. And his fans are over-represented on Twitter, spewing hate against Ajit Pai. But most Democrats have never typed out even the mildest death threat on Twitter. Most Democrats aren’t on Twitter at all.

    Democrats at the Washington Post have fallen in love with the Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Normal Democrats are aware that North Korea is a real country, where actual people starve and die. But Democrats at CNN and Reuters are not normal people. This is real, from the New York Times: “Without a word, only flashing smiles, Kim Jong-un’s sister outflanked Vice President Mike Pence in diplomacy.”

    You have to be pretty warped with hatred towards Mike Pence to forget that North Korea is a real country, not just a blunt instrument to wield against Mike Pence. But the hateful face of the Democratic Party is its media face. It’s the intolerant extremists who fight and claw their way to celebrity status online and on TV who represent the left. They aren’t the majority, but they’re steering the car.

    • Dain says:

      Weirdly it took Buzzfeed – the people most “woke” and theoretically most terrible – to point out to a charmed media that Kim Kong-Un’s sister is a…well, “garbage monster.” (Look it up.)

    • asdf says:

      There are a lot of Democrats voters that are really disengaged. My wife’s older relatives are Boston Irish who vote left because:

      1) JFK was Catholic
      2) Vietnam draft was bad
      3) Something about the working man

      You’ll note none of those things is particularly relevant to the modern democratic party, but they were when they were teenagers I guess and we’re all busy people that can’t update our priors. If any “woke” person had a five minute conversation with them they would probably be declared bigot deplorables despite being pretty average folks.

      I try to remember this when I think about politics. It’s not like 50% of the country supports what is in the NYTimes editorials, mostly they just pull the lever based on habit.

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