You may possibly have noticed that politics is afflicted with irrational emotionalism, culture wars over meaningless symbols, and insane hostility between mutually-incomprehending tribes.
You may also have noticed that many who try to develop a more sophisticated and principled political stance often wind up arguing that some implausible system like communism or anarcho-capitalism would solve all the world’s problems.
You may have been tempted to reject politics altogether, as it seems a battle between blithering berserk baboons.
Here I aim to diagnose these three ailments, and to offer remedies. I draw on two conceptual frameworks: the Meaningness analysis of eternalism, nihilism, and the complete stance; and the adult developmental theory of Robert Kegan.
I’ll explain those shortly, but before diving in, a quick summary—which may make sense only for readers who are already familiar with both ways of thinking.
Much of the appeal of politics nowadays is as a prolific source of definite meanings, in an era in which those seem scarce. Eternalism hallucinates meaning where there is none. Contemporary politics, afflicted with eternalism, is overloaded with irrelevant and illusory meanings.
Following Kegan’s scheme, eternalism in politics can be divided into tribal and systematic forms. These are stages 3 and 4 in his developmental framework. They correspond to the first two paragraphs at the top of this page. The third paragraph expresses nihilistic rejection of politics, which is typical of stage 4.5. The complete stance avoids the errors of both eternalism and nihilism. It relates to stage 5; and in the social realm, it manifests as the fluid mode.
I discuss these in turn below, along with suggestions for how we can move beyond unproductive tribal and systematic political conflicts.
First, a discussion of the psychology of political commitment. (If you have followed my previous writing closely, this will mostly be familiar, so you may want skim, or skip over it.)
The bases of political cognition
The “standard theory” of democratic politics goes something like this.1 Political ideologies are coherent systems of beliefs about government, based on fundamental moral principles. Everyone commits to one ideology, and its beliefs, based on its principles aligning with their moral values. The ideologies contradict each other’s beliefs, and so people fight about which beliefs are correct. They organize political parties to champion their ideology. From an ideology’s principles, you can figure out what your position on specific policy issues should be.2
This is mostly wrong.
- Most people have only a vague understanding of political ideology, and don’t care much about it. They don’t care about ideology because they don’t actually care about government, or about policy.
- To the extent that voters care about government, they mostly just want it to act to benefit people like themselves.
- People do care about politics—but current politics is mostly not about government. It is about tribal identity and personal status.
- Politics is a domain of meaning. We think about meaning mainly in terms of very simple, emotional stances, rather than complex conceptual systems such as political ideologies.
Most voters actively don’t-care about government policy
Surveys consistently show that voters are astonishingly ignorant of basic facts about how their system of government is organized, about current policy questions, and about the policy positions of candidates and parties. For example:
Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.3
The most commonly known fact about George H. W. Bush’s opinions while he was president was that he hated broccoli. During the 1992 presidential campaign, 86 percent of the public knew that the Bushes’ dog was named Millie, yet only 15 percent knew that both presidential candidates supported the death penalty. Judge Wapner, host of the reality-TV series “The People’s Court,” was identified by more people than were Chief Justices Burger or Rehnquist. More people knew who John Lennon was than Karl Marx, and Bill Cosby than either of their U.S. Senators.4
This might lead to the depressing conclusion that voters are extraordinarily stupid. That would be a mistake, though. The reason people don’t know about government is that they don’t care about it. It is boring, and they believe they shouldn’t have to care about it. It should just work, delivered as a reliable public service like electricity. No one knows how electricity works, because there’s no reason to bother.
Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work finds that:
Contrary to the prevailing view that people want greater involvement in politics, most citizens do not care about most policies and therefore are content to turn over decision-making authority to someone else. People’s wish for the political system is that decision makers be empathetic and, especially, non-self-interested, not that they be responsive and accountable to the people’s largely nonexistent policy preferences or, even worse, that the people be obligated to participate directly in decision making.5
Most people vote for their perceived tribal interests
As I discussed in my page on the culture war, political scientists Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban found that differing pragmatic interests explain Americans’ political opinions better than differing ideological or moral “values.” (They summarize this research in The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It.) Ideology dresses up naked self-interest in modest, morally attractive and conceptually elegant outfits. Everyone advocates policies that would favor people like themselves—often at the expense of many or most other people—and then rationalize their views in terms of high-sounding universal principles. This is largely unconscious.6
In a representative democracy, you vote for candidates, not policies. Most people choose a candidate who seems to be from their tribe, or at least empathizes with their tribe, and who will therefore use government to promote the interests of the tribe. They don’t want to have to know how he or she will go about doing that.
To the extent that they keep track of policy issues, they select a handful that are litmus tests for “will this person advance the interests of my tribe?” Those particular policies need not particularly benefit the tribe; the issues they address might be entirely symbolic. They only need to be a reliable indicator of tribal affiliation.
Stances trump systems
Although most people don’t care much about policy, they do care passionately about politics. For many, politics serves as a main source of meaning in life—like religion, ethics, or psychology.
Stances, not conceptual systems, are the main way we deal with questions of meaning. Stances are simple, compelling patterns of thinking and feeling. They are much less elaborate than ideologies—and much more powerful in practice.
This page analyzes political cognition in terms of two confused stances, eternalism and nihilism. Both are responses to nebulosity: the unstable, uncertain, fluid, complex, and ill-defined nature of all meanings. Genuine policy issues are mainly highly nebulous in this sense. Culture war “values” issues are also exceptionally nebulous. This lack of solid ground makes it difficult to know what social structure or political system would be better than others.
Eternalism just fixates meaning for everything—simply denying all uncertainty. It promises to nail meanings in place so they will behave themselves—but it cannot deliver. Nevertheless, both tribal and systematic political thinking are highly eternalistic.
Nihilism, the mirror image of eternalism, denies all meaning. For centrists, and anyone else who is sick and tired of the culture war, entirely denying its meaning is tempting—but, I will suggest below, mistaken.
Many other confused stances play important, detrimental roles in politics. I have suggested that the current culture war is organized around monism and dualism. Both sides in that conflict frequently also deploy mission, romantic rebellion, victim-think, and religiosity—all confused stances on particular dimensions of meaning.7
Complete stances neither fixate nor deny meanings. They recognize nebulosity, and also pattern: that meanings are, to varying extents, also reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite. In “Completing the countercultures,” I explained how this recognition could, in principle at least, dissolve the monism-vs.-dualism political dynamic.
This page applies the same method to eternalism and nihilism. Dropping those might eliminate much political confusion, and along with it much unnecessary political conflict.
This is not a plea for centrism, compromise, civility, or well-meaning tolerance. (I tend to favor those, but that is not the point here.) Political conflict cannot be ended by “finding the truth somewhere in-between.” Partly that’s because it involves conflicts of pragmatic interest; income redistribution benefits some and harms others, and no analysis in terms of meanings or values can change that. But also because both sides are afflicted by the same confused stances. The truth is not in-between; it’s somewhere entirely different: in a complete stance.
Stages of emotional, cognitive, and moral development
Kegan describes three stages of adult development, numbered 3, 4, and 5. We could call them tribal (stage 3), systematic (stage 4), and fluid (stage 5). Each is a complete, consistent way of being, with a characteristic way of approaching relationships, the nature of one’s self, the way one thinks in general, and ethical thinking in particular. Below, I apply this scheme to political thinking.8
These stages are not ideologies, or sets of values. They have no content; they are about form. They are ways one thinks and feels, not what one thinks and feels.
The stages are not alternatives that different people adopt according to innate preferences, or due to family or peer-group influence. They are necessarily-sequential steps in personal growth. People who are at a particular stage cannot think or feel in the ways characteristic of later stages. They actually cannot understand explanations given in a later stage’s framework. (And, they mostly cannot understand that they do not understand them.) On the other hand, anyone at a later stage can accurately describe how someone at an earlier stage would think about an issue.
Stage 3 is about identifying with one’s community. What is good for the tribe is good, period. (This is an eternalistic statement.)
Communal ethics seek harmony within a homogeneous social group. That is maintained by empathically monitoring others’ needs and aligning your intentions toward them. You should obey community taboos and shibboleths, even when they are unjustified and senseless. Violating them upsets people, which is not nice. Living up to what other members expect from you to is good by definition.
For stage 3, conflict within the tribe is anathema, but hostility to outsiders is heroic—because they reject the sacred myths of the tribe, which violates harmony.
Stage 4 is about systems. In political terms, it is ideological, whereas stage 3 hasn’t yet developed the cognitive capacity to evaluate ideological claims. It understands formal structures, principles, and roles. It operates competently in a rule-driven social organization, such as a corporation or governmental body. These are full of asymmetrical, artificial relationships with specific responsibilities. (A tribal community, by contrast, recognizes only conventional family roles; plus one’s loose, unbounded, reciprocal responsibility to support the collective, and right to be supported by it.) For stage 4, a system is ethical if it treats people impartially: based on rights, responsibilities, principles, and procedures, not personal relationships.
Stage 4 takes one system as correct. It sees principles as absolute truths. If two systems conflict, one must be wrong. That makes it, too, an eternalistic view.
Development beyond stage 4 is driven by seeing contradictions within and between systems. At some point you realize that all principles are somewhat arbitrary or relative. There is no ultimately true foundation on which a correct system can be built. It’s not just that we don’t yet know what the absolute truth is; it is that there cannot be one.
This uncomfortable midpoint of the stage 4 to 5 transition is “stage 4.5.” It’s common here to commit to explicit nihilism. Understanding that there is no ultimate meaning, one comes to the wrong conclusion that there are no meanings at all.
Eventually, you notice that meanings continue to operate quite well despite their lack of ultimate foundations. Systems re-emerge as transparent forms. You no longer see by means of systems, but can see through systems as fluid constructions that most people mis-take as solid. Stage 5 is meta-systematic: it can hold contradictions between systems comfortably while respecting the specific functioning and justification-structure of each. It relativizes all ideologies as tools rather than truths.
Stage 5 commits to the complete stance: it recognizes both the nebulosity and the patterns of systems, and so avoids both eternalism and nihilism.
Deflating tribal drama
For stage 3 tribal participants, political conflict is an endless fount of meaning. It offers simple, dramatic narratives, colorful characters, nail-biting battles of Good and Evil, and exciting opportunities for personal heroism and tribal solidarity. These fairy stories and soap operas appear highly meaningful, but are superimposed, with little basis in reality.
Football, Hollywood celebrities’ love lives, and politics are interchangeable entertainments for many. The appeal of sports and gossip also lies in fictional, superimposed dramas of emotional, relational, tribal conflict. That is benign; not so for politics, unfortunately.
Curiosity and realism
Moving from eternalism to the complete stance starts by deflating imaginary dramas and stripping away fake meanings. Political conflict is inevitable, but inter-tribal demonization is not. Culture warring over symbols is not.
Politics minus eternalism leaves practical conflicts, which are inevitable, because people are diverse. However, practical solutions are usually possible—after dissolving eternalist absolutisms, which make compromise look morally wrong.
Minus overlaid meanings, reality looks dull, seen from the eternalistic standpoint. From a distance, the complete stance seems boring, because it is obviously right; and unappealing, because it doesn’t make attractive (but false) promises, like confused stances do. It does not offer The Ultimate Answer To Everything. It only removes obstacles to seeing meanings accurately.
Politics should look dull to eternalists. Its legitimate function is to make decisions about policy issues, like highway maintenance, bank regulation, and cybersecurity. These are severely boring topics—unless you have the curiosity to dive into their intricate details. (Then they become fascinating—of their own accord, without imaginary dramas added.)
Open-ended curiosity is an antidote to both eternalism and nihilism, and a key aspect of the complete stance. When it comes to highway maintenance, bank regulation, and cybersecurity, most people aren’t curious; and there is no reason they should be. But that does imply they shouldn’t be interested in politics.
“Closed-ended” curiosity means seeking the answer to a specific question, within a particular framework. That is characteristic of stage 4 systematic eternalism. Open-ended curiosity requires active enjoyment of nebulosity. It has no beef with meaninglessness, bafflement, and un-knowing. That generosity allows meaning to emerge spontaneously, instead of imposing it. How often in a political discussion do you hear “I don’t know; this is puzzling”? Mostly I hear “That just proves that the correct answer is…!”
Realism is another antidote to both eternalism and nihilism. “Boring” policy topics particularly demand it. Speculative fantasies about cybersecurity are running rife at the moment, and are spectacularly unhelpful.
Everyone feels qualified to have political opinions without knowing anything about policy issues. Everyone feels justified in fighting the culture war without understanding its basis or function. This is stupid, harmful, and morally wrong, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, it is actively encouraged by popular morality in Western democracies. “You ought to develop an informed opinion about political issues so you can participate effectively in democracy” was a powerfully correct social norm at one time. “Informed” meant understanding the policy issues. That part of the norm has fallen away. Perhaps increasing social, economic, and technological complexity has made that inevitable. It was feasible for voters to understand most policy issues back in the systematic era; it is not now. “Informed” opinion, if the adjective is remembered at all, means you can regurgitate a soundbite or factoid you saw on the news last night. It rarely involves structural understanding.
Restoring alternative sources of meaning
The countercultures merged religion, ethics, and politics. That reduced all three to vague, homogenous, weaksauce pablum. Each of these distinct domains of meaning lost its specificity and its bite. That is comfortable—and it was by offering comfort that the countercultures could create mass movements.
But it has also left a vacuum of meaningfulness. So, layers of fictional meaning got added to politics in order to make it do the work ethics and religion used to. The slogans “social justice” and “family values” were pressed into service as ill-suited and inadequate substitutes for morality and religion. Nearly everyone agrees that society should be just, and should honor and support families. Almost no one is against either, which makes them meaningless if taken at face value. As political slogans, they act instead as applause lights for the whole of the left and right political agendas, respectively.
It is hard to let go of imaginary meanings without better alternatives. Restoring religion and ethics to their proper roles as distinctive sources of value would help. (It would be the right thing for their own sakes as well!)
In the case of religion, both countercultures merged many dissimilar traditions into the two generic New Age and Christian Conservative brands, neither of which had much content. (Buddhism, which happens to be my religion, got caught up in this, and was reduced to “it’s nice to be nice.”)
I would like religious leaders to proclaim, once again, that different religions, denominations, and sects are importantly different. That doesn’t have to imply sectarian conflict—“different” doesn’t mean “ours is the Only True Way”—but even that might be better than “all religions teach the same truth.” And, in a country that guarantees religious freedom, sectarian animosity would be preferable to the political culture war.
Kegan was particularly concerned with ethics. He observed that adult cognitive development in general, and ethical development in particular, requires social and cultural support. The transition from stage 3 to stage 4 ethics is difficult to accomplish solo. Joining a well-functioning social system that demonstrates systematic ethics in action is hugely helpful. Unfortunately, Western societies have allowed this “bridge” to fall into disrepair, making getting to stage 4 is harder than it should be. Repairing the bridge would be a major step toward defusing the tribal culture war.
It would also help to reinforce additional sources of meaning that have been particularly undercut by atomization: artistic creativity; a realistic understanding of selfness and its developmental transitions; and—most of all—community. This is exactly the project of the fluid mode, in its aspect of addressing the defects of atomization.
Many political scientists have suggested, uneasily, that people who don’t understand politics shouldn’t be allowed to vote. The logic of this is inescapable, but there are strong obvious objections to putting it into practice—even in principle. The following post suggests a way to keep politically uninformed, cognitively tribal people from affecting policy decisions, without depriving them of a vote.
Looking beyond political systems
A more sophisticated understanding of politics concerns systems: institutions, principles, and rule-governed procedures. Eternalism at stage 4 is the stance that there are ultimately correct institutions, principles, and rules. Its fantasy is that there must be some cosmically true system of government, and if only we adopted it, it would solve most social problems.
The 1960s-80s countercultures were originally systematic. However, it is hard to hold systems together without the glue of rationality, which both countercultures rejected. They tried to find alternative adhesives, and mostly failed. As a result, the culture war that is their legacy is mainly symbolic, mythic, and emotive; i.e., tribal.
Anyway, we’re now living in the atomized era. That has not only dissolved all coherence, it renders the countercultures senseless because they are archaic relics left over from two modes back. Their waterlogged wrecks are breaking up and sinking into the contemporary sea of atomized meanings.
For those who have a systematic worldview, a main appeal of culture warring is that political ideology is a source of coherent, structured meanings, which are socially validated as important. In the atomized era, conceptual coherence has become precious and scarce, outside of technical disciplines.
For non-technical people making the 3-to-4 transition, by gradually developing the ability to think systematically, working through the logic of a political ideology can be a lifeline of meaningfulness. Testing one’s arguments in debate is a training ground for rational thought. One can be proud of rising above the meaningless chaotic noise of tribal political discord, and of gaining a seeming understanding of how the world really works, and how society really should be organized.
Unfortunately, although it is more sophisticated, systematic political eternalism is as mistaken as the tribal version. Two reasons: there is no correct political system, and political reasoning from first principles doesn’t work.
There is no correct political system
Arguing about which tidy, rational system is correct—in the abstract—is nearly as irrelevant and counterproductive as arguing about which tribe is correct. Politics doesn’t run on tidy rational systems. And never did—despite the pretensions of the systematic era—and never could. (I’ll explain why briefly below, and in more detail later in the book.)
Systematic, “rational” reasoning about political structures usually ends up in a simplistic, totalizing vision that is logically elegant but ignores obvious practicalities, and which would be a disaster if implemented. Communism, anarchism, and idealized laissez-faire capitalism are typical examples. These systems are also all highly moralistic (whereas the fluid mode recognizes the nebulosity of ethics, and its only-partial coupling with politics, and so can be more pragmatic).
Geeky details of government structure can be important, and structural tinkering may be worthwhile. However, the idea that wholesale replacement with idealized first-principles alternatives would solve most problems is a fantasy. It proved catastrophic in many countries during the twentieth century.
Political reasoning from first principles doesn’t work
Deductive reasoning is typical of stage 4 political thinking. “This principle implies that such-and-such a policy would have that outcome, which would be morally right; therefore it is the correct policy.”
The appeal of deductive reasoning is the promise of certainty. If you have found the right political system, and you follow valid rules of logic, you will know for sure what the correct policies are. Also, your position will be unassailable, and you can win all political arguments (so long as your opponents are even vaguely rational). Unfortunately, this is completely delusional.
Reasoning from first principles usually obscures the relevant issues in pragmatic policy problems. Those are typically nebulous: hideously complex, replete with messy practical specifics, and dependent on constantly-changing circumstances. Their effects are highly uncertain ahead of time, difficult to identify after the fact, and of ambiguous value since they benefit some people and hurt others. Deductive logic—which proceeds from clear-cut certainty to clear-cut certainty—fails in the face of such nebulosity.9
Further, in political conflicts, fundamental principles are usually multiple and disagree. If there was only one, or they all pointed in same direction, one policy would be obviously the right thing and people would just do it and there would be no controversy. Stage 4 reasoning has limited resources for dealing with conflicting principles. (Stage 5 has more. Relatedly, stage 5 recognizes, as neither 3 nor 4 consistently does, that your political opponents are not motivated by uncommon malice or stupidity.)
Most policy issues must be addressed empirically, not deductively. Would a Basic Guaranteed Income scheme lead to greater or lesser employment? Would legalizing heroin lead to an increase or decrease in fatal overdoses? Will legalizing gay marriage be good or bad for children of same-sex couples? There is no way to reason these questions out. The only way to get answers is to do experiments and see what happens.
Systematic people are often nearly as ignorant about policy issues as tribal ones are—but for a completely different reason. Tribal people simply find government uninteresting. Systematic people choose ignorance because facts—and especially uncertain facts—wreck first-principles reasoning, and frequently contradict simplistic implications of eternalistic systems.
Michael Huemer, recommending that most people stay out of politics, writes:
It seems to me that most people who expend a great deal of effort promoting political causes expend very little effort attempting to make sure their beliefs are correct. They tend to hold very strong beliefs that they are very reluctant to reconsider. When presented with new information conflicting with their existing beliefs, these individuals are much more likely to react with anger, as one under attack, than with gratitude…. The evidence thus suggests that politically committed people are motivated more by a desire for a sense of promoting political ideals than by a desire for those ideals themselves.
Productive political debate argues concrete practicalities, not systems or values. In “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People,” which points toward a stage 5 understanding of politics, David Blankenhorn recommends—among other excellent advice—doubting your convictions, and sticking to specifics.
Because generalization is both an ally and a frequent indicator of polarization, highly depolarizing people tend to be connoisseurs of the specific. This dedication to specificity can express itself in at least four important ways. The first is a persistent skepticism about categories. The second is to consider each issue separately and on its own terms, as opposed to assuming the validity of a governing ideological framework, such as “conservatism” or “liberalism.” The third shifts the argument away from abstract, often philosophically charged questions, toward specific empirical ones. The fourth is to rely on inductive reasoning, which tries to build conclusions from the bottom up by accumulating specific data points, over deductive reasoning, which tries to build conclusions from the top down by exploring the implications of true general premises or statements.10
The modal muddle
In terms of Kegan’s stages, the largest group of Western adults are somewhere in the 3-to-4 transition. They have some capacity for rule-governed, systematic rationality, but cannot apply it reliably or in all domains.
Most people’s political arguments display a muddled mixture of tribal loyalty and systematic ideology. Their grasp of political principles is superficial. Typically they invoke ideological claims as support for tribal commitments; but, lacking full understanding of the principles, their argument falls apart quickly when challenged. Their usual response is to keep shifting to different semi-principled justifications for their tribal interest, with no overall logical coherence. This is most of what you get when reading amateur politics on the web.
For someone with a stage 4 understanding, arguing with someone like this can be infuriating, because they don’t seem to actually care about the principles, only to assert them when convenient. (Stage 4 cares passionately about principles.) The modal political junkie doesn’t ever seem to know when they’ve lost an argument; they just keep throwing up new objections that don’t quite work either.
In the page on atomized politics, I’ll suggest that developing a systematic political understanding has become an important status symbol over the past decade. It’s proof of the ability to think coherently, in an era in which coherence has disintegrated. Unfortunately, this has significantly contributed to the increasing polarization of politics during that period.
Eschewing meta-political nihilism
By “meta-political nihilism” I mean the stance that politics is meaningless, and therefore should be ignored.11 Three different insights about political meaninglessness can lead to this view. I’ll explain how are each is partly accurate and valuable, but limited.
The sense that politics is so screwed up that it is hopeless can make you wish that it were meaningless, and so pretend to yourself that it is meaningless. But it is not meaningless—there is much at stake—and not, I think, hopeless.
Three paths to meta-political nihilism
Centrism can lead to nihilism. Centrists observe, accurately, that often the left and right take extreme views on a policy question only for the sake of general political strategy, rather than for reasons based in the specifics of the issue. A middle position may be better, but both sides are unwilling to compromise, not out of actual conviction, but as a game tactic.12 Partisans may also have been able to convince themselves of extreme positions as a consequence of eternalist absolutism; whereas centrists are more likely to recognize the nebulosity of the issue.
Pointing out the errors in extreme positions often only gets you flak from both sides. Culture warriors already know their tribal positions are wrong, but feel they must defend them; making that explicit just annoys them. Recognizing this dynamic does make politics look like a meaningless squabble between two monkey troupes.
Political scientists have found that, over the past couple decades, American centrists have become less and less willing to express opinions, or to engage with either side. Many have withdrawn from politics. This creates a void, which heightens polarization, reinforces the impression that you must swear allegiance to one tribe or the other, and increases still further both sides’ hostility to the middle.
As a second path to nihilism, many partisans eventually do come to realize that tribal politics is wrong. At some point, you start asking yourself “why do I believe this,” and find the answer “because all Good people do” inadequate. (Often this is triggered by accidentally making friends with someone who is not a member of the Good Tribe, having a non-confrontational discussion of a political issue, and finding what they say is weird, but not what you thought the Bad Tribe believed, and that it seems to have just as much connection with reality as what you had believed.) Rather than moving to the center, you may then conclude that all political opinions are arbitrary, motivated only by tribalism, and adopt the nihilistic stance. This is a “3.5” nihilism, intermediate between the tribal and systematic stages.
At that point, you may start looking for some better basis for political judgement. You ask “so how can I know what is right, if not just on the basis of tribalism?” Then you may adopt a systematic, principled ideology. Rather than arguing with tribalists, you argue with other ideologues.
Eventually, if you are intellectually honest, you will realize that neither your system, nor any other, can provide consistently accurate answers to practical political questions. And this is the third path to political nihilism, if you conclude that politics is hopeless and meaningless because all systems are wrong. That is stage 4.5, post-systematic nihilism.
The appeal and faults of meta-political nihilism
The central promise of nihilism—not just in politics but overall—is that you don’t have to care. You don’t have to care because it doesn’t mean anything. When politics looks like a chaotic nightmare full of screaming enraged idiots, the promise that it is just sound and fury, signifying nothing, is highly attractive. Nihilism promises that you have no responsibility. When wading into that insane morass looks hopeless, that promise comes as a great relief.
Nihilism offers cool, quiet simplicity and clarity. Clarity that there is definitely no meaning to be found—in politics, for instance—so you need not try to find it. You need not engage with the maddening nebulosity of social issues: the unavoidable ambiguities of right and wrong, the uncertainties of policy outcomes, the constant change that quickly dissolves the underpinnings of any judgement, the mind-boggling complexity of institutions and their incentives and processes.
Nihilism promises that, since it’s all meaningless anyway, things can’t get any worse. For nihilism, everything is always at the zero point. There’s no hope of improvement, but no need to fear negative developments either.
These promises are so appealing that, I think, most people fall into meta-political nihilism quite often, even though nearly everyone is committed to some form of political eternalism.13
But, nihilism is wrong. Obviously so.
Politics matters. There is much at stake.
Politics could get much, much worse. Things look a little sketchy here in 2016—but we need some perspective. Compared with most of the 20th century, it’s practically utopian. The quality of governance globally is massively better now than at any time before this century. Even in the developed world, it’s mostly better than in, say, the 1970s.
Developing a fluid, meta-systematic understanding of politics
Systems of government are important and necessary, and a huge improvement on pre-systematic tribalism. However, getting them right cannot, by itself, solve political problems. Systematic political eternalism imagines that a government is a machine, and if designed correctly, you can just set it running and it will get all the right answers. But governments are not, and cannot be, machines.
Moving beyond the systematic view requires recognizing that governmental systems are always nebulous: ambiguous, incomplete, changing, imperfect, and impermanent. This is not because we have yet to locate the correct system; it’s an inherent consequence of the way all systems work.
The actual operation of government orients to a systematic, legal framework; but cannot, even in principle, be governed by it. Laws, regulations, and procedures always have to be interpreted in a concrete situation; they can never be specific enough to spell out precisely what should be done in every instance. This interpretation is always a matter of continual renegotiation; an ongoing accomplishment of participants in particular circumstances. (This language is the same I recently used in discussing gender—not coincidentally!)
No system can guarantee good government. People run a government, not vice versa. Good government requires good faith.
Good societies are those in which there is common knowledge that most people—and especially most in government—are mostly committed to doing the right thing, where “the right thing” is not definable ahead of time. “Doing the right thing” cannot be forced by any system, because nebulosity makes it impossible to foresee all future circumstances and specify what would be right to do then.
Doing the right thing is always collaboratively improvised in concrete circumstances. Well-designed institutions are powerful resources in that collaborative improvisation. However, they are only tools for doing the right thing, never guarantors of it. There are ways to encourage ethical responsiveness, but no way to enforce it.
Stage 5 sees society as an assemblage of transient, contingent systems, which have relative functional value but no ultimate justification. It sees conflicts between groups with different interests as inevitable, and ultimately as non-problematic, even if sometimes harmful in the short run. Since it sees all values as negotiable—although some are more important than others—it has the capacity to build bridges between competing groups and to help resolve their conflicts. It sees changes in values and structures over time as an inherent feature of all systems, and so seeks to steer them toward positive innovations, rather than insisting on preserving a system’s current self-definition.
That is quite abstract. Producing a specific fluid politics is a massive project, that can only be carried forward by many people in collaboration. I do plan to sketch some aspects of one in the fluid mode chapter of Meaningness and Time.
In practice, a first step is getting a critical mass of people to stage 5. I have suggested that a bridging structure is needed to support that transition—just as a bridge of social and cultural support is important in the 3-to-4 transition. I am working toward building one.
- 1.It may be that no one believes this “standard” theory. It’s roughly what’s taught in a civics class, so everyone’s discourse orients to it, even though it may not reflect any reality.
- 2.This folk theory of political conflict is obviously derived from the folk theory of religious conviction. That theory is also wrong, for the same reasons.
- 3.Caleb Crain, “The case against democracy.”
- 4.Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics and Why it Matters, p. 101. Quote lightly edited for clarity. TL;DR: in many cases, shockingly little; although (surprise!) voters from socially dominant demographic categories know more. Perhaps more interestingly, they found that better-informed voters are less likely to vote for their tribal interest, and more likely to favor policies of general benefit. There’s an extended summary of the book here.
- 5.Quote is from the blurb, rather than the book itself. Emphasis added.
- 6.One should be skeptical, at first, about any claims about unconscious psychological processes—because how could we know? Weeden and Kurzban correlate survey data on people’s stated political values, their socioeconomic circumstances, and their stated policy preferences. They find higher correlations between socioeconomic factors and policy preferences than between political ideology and policy preferences.
- 7.To keep this page shorter than an encyclopedia, I am resisting the temptation to go into detail on the political role of each of these confused stances, and how they might be defused.
- 8.This political application is purely speculative. Kegan’s work is based on extensive empirical study; I’m just waving my hands.
- 9.For the sake of religious Bayesians, I should mention that it also thrashes probabilistic inference. Uncertainty is not the problem; it is ambiguity.
- 10.Blankenhorn quote edited for concision.
- 11.This is unrelated to the political movement called “nihilism,” which advocated revolutionary socialist anarchism, and was not nihilist in the present sense at all.
- 12.The middle is not always correct; I am not advocating centrism for its own sake. Centrism can be motivated just by aversion to conflict, which may be mere cowardice. However, the more polarized politics gets, the more often centrists will be right on average.
- 13.In fact, political nihilism may motivate systematic political eternalism. Michael Travers’ essay “Three forms of antipolitics” suggests that rationalists, libertarians, and Neoreactionaries all advocate logical systems as a way of avoiding the messiness of political conflict. This seems right. Eternalism and nihilism take opposite stands on meaningfulness, but both are based on rejecting nebulosity—i.e. messiness. Both are obviously wrong, but adopting the complete stance requires you to engage with nebulosity squarely, which is so off-putting that it’s common to jump back and forth between eternalism and nihilism to avoid it. In terms of Kegan’s developmental theory, rationalism and libertarianism both typically exhibit stage 4 (systematic) reasoning. Some Neoreactionaries have moved beyond that, explicitly recognizing the inherent limits of systems. The danger here is falling into stage 4.5 nihilism. The “Dark Enlightenment” branch of Neoreaction has, unfortunately, succumbed to that. Others may be working toward a positive meta-systematic alternative, although none is as yet in evidence.