The Real Roots of the Debt Ceiling Debate. Tribalism versus Reason.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
It is not overstating it to say that the world will be watching Washington these next couple weeks, nervously, since the global economy relies on the full faith and credit of the United States, and America’s ability to borrow money, and therefore to repay it’s debts, is in jeopardy. Most commentary blames political warfare for holding America’s credit limit hostage. But what is being portrayed as a political fight over taxes and spending, is a battle about much more, with far deeper roots. Given the depth of those roots, this moment will provide an important test of how well the human animal can deal with risk.
A cutting edge body of research known as Cultural Cognition (project website) has found that while we state our opinions and views based on the facts, subconsciously we shape our interpretation of those facts so our views agree with those in the groups with which we most strongly identify. To Cultural Cognition theory, “group” means something much deeper than Democrat/Republican or Liberal/Conservative. It turns out that we fall into groups according to how we prefer society to be organized and operate. This is vitally important to social animals like us, since we depend on our tribes for our own well-being and even survival. We feel safest when society operates by the rules that our group, our tribe, prefers.
Cultural Cognition identifies us in four groups along two continua.
Individualist --------- Communitarian
Hierarchist --------- Egalitarian.
- An Individualist prefers a society that mostly leaves the individual alone, where individual rights and choices have the greatest say, in which there is generally less government, not more. Politically, Individualists tend to be Libertarians and conservative Republicans. They support tax and spending cuts because less government results in a more Individualist society.
- A Communitarian prefers a “we’re all in this together” society where the collective is more involved in determining how things go, and government involvement is generally a good thing. Communitarians tend to be more left wing Democrats for whom more spending and government produces the sort of communal society they prefer.
- A Hierarchist prefers a society that operates within fixed divisions of class and race, a caste system status quo constrained by the familiar old way of doing things. Hierarchists tend to be Republicans and conservatives and prefer smaller government and fewer regulations (i.e. less government spending) that are intended to level the playing field.
- Egalitarians bristle at what they see as the injustice of restrictive economic and social class and hierarchy. They prefer a more flexible and fair society, free of the limitations and inequalities of hierarchical class that limit social and economic mobility. Egalitarians tend to be liberal Democrats who prefer active government intervention (e.g,. higher taxes on those at the top of the ladder) to produce a more fair Egalitarian society.
While each of us tends more to one side of each scale than the other, there is some Individualist ------- Communitarian, and some Hierarchist -------- Egalitarian, in most of us. So the research puts the two scales together in a grid that looks like this;
Individualist - - - - - - - - - - Communitarian
David Brooks senses these deeper roots in a recent column “The Mother of All No-Brainers”, without recognizing what Cultural Cognition reveals about the underlying causes of the current debate. Brooks calls the Individualist/Hierarchist (he uses the standard label of “Republican”) fixation on cutting spending and refusing to raise new taxes a “psychological protest”, a “sacred fixation”, and a “fanaticism” whose believers “worship an idol” and “do not accept the logic of compromise.” That sounds like something far deeper than political ideology, wouldn’t you say?
This is much deeper than politics. Our views about government spending and taxes, and about so many of the divisive issues of the day, are not just about party, or ideology. In fact, they are not even purely a product of conscious rational analysis. They stem from powerful subconscious instinctive motivations for social cohesion that are intimately tied to nothing less than how safe we feel. Compromising on that is hard…indeed, it’s threatening…no matter what side of any issue we happen to be on. We are all tribal. This is why these battles are so fierce. There is way more at stake than the size of the national debt.
How the debt ceiling issue plays out will be instructive for the larger challenge we face these days, the angry polarized us-against-them way we have come to live. It’s pretty clear that doubts about the credit-worthiness of the United States could have dramatic economic consequences that could hurt us all. In the face of such staggering stakes, can our cognitive brain overcome our emotional brain? Can we rise above our deep-seated tribal drivers and reason our way to some sort of compromise? On this issue and so many others, can we do what is rationally best for the greater good, even when it tears at what feels instinctively right for our tribe?
It’s a challenge to the human animal at this point in our evolution that we fail, at our great peril.
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