Tribes and Parties

a fashionable opinion

In his recent two-part “paranoid rant” in his own comments section, Scott Alexander once again proved himself, whether he likes it or not, to be one of neoreaction’s most important and effective writers.

The truly significant argument, however, hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

I think of these political differences as secondary to (and proxy for) more complicated tribal/class differences

The modern left is primarily a culture. Its political positions are emanations of that culture, not its central or essential elements. What unites the culture is not any set of political propositions, but the social elements of belonging to an in-group and following a set of fashions.

As far as membership of the culture is concerned, opposing abortion or supporting gun ownership are exactly as bad as listening to Nickelback. Political positions are fashionable or unfashionable first, and subject to rational or ideological analysis second.

This is really important, because of what it says about the motive (or rather, lack of motive) behind the direction of dominant political thought. If Selina Gomez wears a fishtail skirt at the Grammys, that’s not because she wants people to wear fishtail skirts for the rest of 2016, it’s because she wants to be noticed and admired, and other people copying it is just a byproduct of her being more popular than Lady Gaga. Likewise, if Jon Stewart says he wants laws against people owning guns, it doesn’t mean he is actually affected by the law, it just means he thinks that opinion is a good one for him to have. If other people then copy his views, he will be pleased that they are copying him, and that he is therefore a fashion leader, but he won’t be even vaguely aware of what the results of that shift in opinion actually is. That’s much less important than whether people are following him or following the other guy.

Jon Stewart won’t come out for gun control if he thinks it’s stupid, and Selena Gomez won’t wear a dress to the Grammys if she thinks it’s ugly, but in both cases the decision of what is or is not attractive is being made in the context of what other fashionable people are doing, and is validated after the fact by the reaction it gets. Also in both cases being “daring” counts for a lot.

Fashion isn’t random, and neither is political fashion. There is a degree of stability, balanced against a search for newness, and with fairly predictable directions of development and occasional abrupt “shock value” reveals. The way to be a fashion leader is first, to be recognised as fashionable, and then to take the current height of fashion and change it slightly. Changing back to last year’s version doesn’t work, so extending the most recent changes is the best bet.

Most people of course aren’t trying to be fashion leaders, they’re just trying to keep up. The safest way to do that is to simply copy what the fashion leaders have done recently, perhaps after a slight delay to make sure the latest styles didn’t turn out to be seen as mistakes.

The reason it is so important to understand this is that it reveals the irrelevance of actual political positions, and, especially, their consequences. Voting or advocating for a policy is so remote from, first, that policy being enacted, and, second, the eventual effects of the policy that it plays no role in determining what the best policy to advocate for is. Is Emma Watson likely to be directly harmed by calling for refugees to be settled in Britain? Not at all: first, what she says as an individual is very unlikely to make a difference, second, if it does make a difference it is unlikely to affect her, and third, even if it does, it may be years away and the connection from cause to effect is not going to be obvious. And that’s for one of the more spectacularly insane policy positions: most political argument is about much smaller-scale questions of welfare allocation or environmental policy or whatever, where the actual effects of a policy round to zero in the cost-benefit calculation even to six decimal places. This is the Myth of the Rational Voter applied even to politicians and opinion leaders themselves.

If the effect of the policies being driven by the fashionable is to impoverish, damage, or even destroy an entire civilisation, that does not mean that anyone at all actually wants to impoverish, damage or destroy the civilisation. They’re just wearing pretty dresses, participating in the culture, being human. The followers even more, are just adopting good opinions. If Selena Gomez wears a dress, it is a good dress. If the Daily Show assumes a political point of view, it is a good point of view. That’s not a deduction, it’s a definition: good opinions are the opinions of good people. Consequences don’t come into it.


One thought on “Tribes and Parties

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s