Epistemology is the study of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Epistemic may not be a word we commonly use, but I think it was entirely appropriate in this Vox headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis has Arrived.”
The Vox article focuses on what it calls a “stress test,” and considers whether the right can shield itself from “plain facts in plain sight.”
Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.
It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.
It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.
The article asks the question that all sane, “reality-based” Americans have been asking ourselves: Can the right-wing propaganda machine successfully keep the right-wing base believing an alternate reality–at least long enough to get through the next election?
Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).
Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.
When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence, what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.
A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.
It began with talk radio and Fox, but grew into an entire ecosystem that is constantly working to shape the worldview of its white suburban/rural audiences, who are being primed for what the author calls “a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.”
The article is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but the following paragraphs graphically describe what that “epistemic crisis” will look like over the next year:
This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.
On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.
All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.
It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.
If it succeeds, reality and America both lose.