A Mental Model For Politics

Politics is the process by which tribal groups negotiate the distribution of power and resources in a society. A tribal group may identify strongly with a particular philosophy. However, conflating politics with philosophy (“values”) is a muddy way of viewing the underlying drivers of political conflict. It took me a long time (about 15 years) to realize this.

I now realize there are two dimensions to tribal politics:

  • The competitive dimension (the political process itself). This is essentially a strategy game. Because it is a strategy game, effective political operatives (Lee Atwater) needn’t actually concern themselves with “correct” policy or philosophy. Their role is simply to “win”–that is, secure power and resources for the tribal group they serve.
  • The philosophical dimension (the inner lives of tribal group members). This is the process by which tribal group members construct their identities, bond with one another and develop a shared vision of how power and resources should be allocated across society. Tribal group members may or may not develop their identities through a rigorous process of reasoning from first principles. That depends largely on the mental complexity of each individual.

Thus, mental complexity is a key input to this model:

  • Socialized minds simply adopt an identity consistent with their surroundings.
  • Self-authoring minds go a step further and build their own identity.
  • Self-transforming minds go a step even further and work to develop a meta-understanding of tribal group dynamics, in order to integrate that into a more “complete” mental model of how the world works.

To make that more concrete:

  • The socialized mind says: “Everyone in my town and my workplace supports Political Party A. Political Party A is the place to be. I am A.”
  • The self-authoring mind says: “I identify with aspects of Political Party A, but also Political Party B. Furthermore, I believe in X, Y and Z based on my education, life experience and vision for what I want to achieve in life. I combine these inputs to formulate my own identity, views and goals. I am a C.”
  • The self-transforming mind says: “I am a C, but it is possible (in fact likely) that my views as a C are incomplete, inaccurate, or oversimplified. I must leave room to modify these views over time. Over the years I will likely transform from a C to a D, to an E, and so on as I constantly integrate new learnings into my mental model of the world.”

Morgan Housel provides a good example of how a self-transforming mind views tribal politics:

Everyone belongs to a tribe and underestimates how influential that tribe is on their thinking. There is little correlation between climate change denial and scientific literacy. But there is a strong correlation between climate change denial and political affiliation. That’s an extreme example, but everyone has views persuaded by identity over pure analysis. There’s four parts to this:

  • Tribes are everywhere: Countries, states, parties, companies, industries, departments, investment styles, economic philosophies, religions, families, schools, majors, credentials, Twitter communities.
  • People are drawn to tribes because there’s comfort in knowing others understand your background and goals.
  • Tribes reduce the ability to challenge ideas or diversify your views because no one wants to lose support of the tribe.
  • Tribes are as self-interested as people, encouraging ideas and narratives that promote their survival. But they’re exponentially more influential than any single person. So tribes are very effective at promoting views that aren’t analytical or rational, and people loyal to their tribes are very poor at realizing it.

Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen once showed Democratic voters supported Republican proposals when they were attributed to fellow Democrats more than they supported Democratic proposals attributed to Republicans (and the opposite for Republican voters). This kind of stuff happens everywhere, in every field, if you look for it.

It should be obvious by now why most political debates among individuals go nowhere:

  • Most individuals debating politics do not clearly distinguish between the strategy game dimension and the philosophical dimension. This is important. A genuine philosophical debate is a complex and mentally taxing endeavor requiring concentration and a high level of openness. The goal of a philosophical debate is to pursue Truth, not to “win.” What we call political “debate” is almost always strategy and tactics masquerading as philosophy.
  • Socialized minds are simply not capable of engaging in genuine philosophical debate. They do not possess the requisite level of mental complexity (though they certainly can develop it). You will never change a socialized mind with evidence and argument. You need look no further than the comments section of a website for evidence of this.
  • Self-authoring minds are more than capable of engaging in lively philosophical debate. However, they tend to grasp their mental models rather tightly (after all, these are intelligent, highly motivated individuals we are talking about). This can be perceived as either stubborn, obnoxious or even courageous, depending on the observer. As mentioned above, genuine philosophical debate is exhausting. Most people do not want to put the energy into engaging in genuine philosophical debate. Don’t waste your time trying to debate political philosophy with people who aren’t interested in working hard at the process!
  • From a distance, self-transforming minds can seem devoid of logical consistency. This is especially true from the perspective of a socialized mind, for which maintaining an identity consistent with the tribal group is of paramount importance. This is because self-transforming minds are explicitly aware not only of the need to develop mental models, but of the need to adjust them. This can make it difficult for them to relate to the more static worldviews of self-authoring and socialized minds (and vice versa). Others may view a self-transforming mind as an untrustworthy waffler.

To conclude, here is a little checklist for thinking about politics:

  • Be explicit about the dimension you are analyzing:
    • Strategic Dimension?
    • Philosophical Dimension?
  • When analyzing the strategic dimension, do not conflate “values” with strategy and tactics. This will allow you to reason more clearly.
  • If you are analyzing the philosophical dimension, account for mental complexity.
  • If you are involved in a political discussion, try to understand the level of mental complexity the other part(ies) are operating at. This will lead to richer, more fulfilling conversations. On the other end of the spectrum, it will clue you in on when it might make sense to simply disengage.
  • If you want to do deep, truthful, political analysis, you need to integrate both the strategic and philosophical dimensions.

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