The Trouble with Common Knowledge is that It is NOT Common!

This is a fantastic piece, and perhaps, naturally written by a guy who was a poli sci academic trained in formal political theory, now working in the private sector.

The basic argument is of the same format as my usual rants about how restricted political agenda limits visible alternatives (that are in fact available to be chosen) and artificially induces an appearance of unidimensional political space.  Thus, if everyone accepts free markets is the only “obvious” choice, for example, a two dimensional political universe, where “economic” dimension is orthogonal to the “social” dimension is reduced simply to the social dimension, with everyone who is “serious” on the the same side economically.  I had noted before that this induced unidimensionality is not the same as “true” unidimensinoality:  even if the elites might behave unidimensionally, the voters aren’t in on this unidimensionalization trick, or to borrow Hunt’s lingo, no matter how much “common knowledge” says John Oliver is funny, people who don’t get his humor won’t find him funny.

I can’t find  my old post referring to this–which was, admittedly, a long after the fact itself–but after Eric Cantor lost I joked about the two Tea Parties:  Eric Cantor’s Tea Party and the Tea Party that voted him out, which in this year’s election, have taken the forms of Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s backers in the Republican Party.  The difference between them seems minimal if one were to insist on viewing them through the lens of the conventional wisdom, but they are nothing alike if how their perception of the political universe is to be considered.  Ted Cruz’s Tea Party buys into the usual definition of politics that delineate what is and what isn’t conservative.   Donald Trump’s Tea Party exists in a dimension orthogonal to it.  The common narrative, so to speak, is that the latter are foolish, irrational, ignorant.  That is partly true, but partly inaccurate.  The latter have a pretty good idea of what they want in the abstract and what kind of clues that they feel that they can trust.  However, they either cannot read the signposts that currently define the American political landscape or cannot trust those who put up those signs in the first place–those who have set the agenda, so to speak, by designing those institutions, i.e. those who planted the signposts in the first place.  Instead, they speak in a lingo that is, in turn, incomprehensible to those who only understand the common narrative.

The point that I was hoping to make in what is, for now, my suspended book project, was that this is not a state of affairs that cannot be sustained indefinitely, even if it can remain stable for a long time if those who run the ship of the state, so to speak, understand what is kept off the agenda, the consequences thereof, and maintain a careful enough balance.  David Mayhew’s argument about universalism in Congress was not so much a description of the reality–although it may have been in the politics of 1960s–but of the strategy that maintained the balance, where everyone is suitably paid off not to rock the boat needlessly.  The trend towards polarization begets a peculiar paradox:  while the parties might polarize inexorably along the dimension as defined by the conventional wisdom, they look exactly the same to those who don’t understand or buy into the conventional wisdom.  To those who think John Oliver is funny–i.e. those who like and pay attention to the current political fights–the Democrats and Republicans are nothing alike and the differences between Hillary Clinton and, say, Paul Ryan are unbridgeable.  To those who don’t find John Oliver funny, Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan look, talk, and sound exactly the same.  Trump and Sanders may not be the same people, for all the talk about “dangerous populists of the left and the right,” but they do share the same political dimension–they speak to the people who think Benny Hill is funny and don’t get Oliver.

When there are enough people who don’t get Oliver, it is pointless to try to use him as the baseline to define politics around:  using Hill to redefine politics offers an opportunity to realign, to use the much-repeated political science lingo, the political landscape.  This is not, however, automatic:  all the infrastructure created and invested in by the elites around the premise that John Oliver is funny will not demolish themselves.  They will keep to fight the political dimension the way it suits them, and they enjoy tremendous advantage in the attempt–including the control over the incumbent institutions themselves.  If the  Benny Hill crowd is sufficiently unmotivated, if they can be induced to dissipate quickly, perhaps by an offer of social insurance and universal healthcare, the status quo may survive.  If the keepers of the status quo overplay their hand, however, things are bound to get ugly.

PS.  The Hunt post that I linked to points to an interesting role played by the Weberian bureaucrats, Bismarckian “conservatives,” Mayhewian gnomes, and Central Bankers (and other such “keepers of institutions.”)  Their role is to keep reinventing the narrative to keep alive their ability to “compel human behavior.”  If you will, to prevent the inconvenient new observation that the actual behavior of the sunspots, in fact, don’t correlate so neatly with markets any more from being seen, among other mythmaking activities.  To appreciate the significance of their actions, however, those who run the institutions themselves need to be aware of the semi-mythical foundations on which they stand.  There is nothing magical about the sunspots, other than the fact that people believe that sunspots affects markets and make their economic decisions accordingly, thus making the prophecy true.  Once those who run the institutions start believing the myths themselves, start believing that they are “true,” they are bound to tempt the fate.  A soldier may well be superstitious enough to believe that magic charms reduce his chance of being killed, and that’s not a bad thing.  If he believes that the magic charm WILL prevent him from being killed, we have a problem, if it induces him to take unnecessary chances and make unsound military decisions.  Once he became the kaiser, William II “only saw Germans.”  The thought that they might rise up and overthrow the Hohenzollerns was unthinkable and all the cautionary activities undertaken by Bismarck to thwart the specter of a social revolution must have seemed like a foolish superstition, perhaps not unlike the Aztec human sacrifice…and how do you know if the sunrise and human sacrifice are correlated unless you stop the latter.  Unfortunately for the German Empire, of course, Bismarck’s fears were justified by the events of 1918-19.


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