Bluff and Double Bluff Go to Washington

In Chapter 3, Book 1 of Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin gives a version of the General Consensus argument for the existence of God that includes the following:

It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals, as a means of keeping the body of the people in due subjection, while there was nothing which those very individuals, while teaching others to worship God, less believed than the existence of a God. I readily acknowledge, that designing men have introduced a vast number of fictions into religion, with the view of inspiring the populace with reverence or striking them with terror, and thereby rendering them more obsequious; but they never could have succeeded in this, had the minds of men not been previously imbued with that uniform belief in God, from which, as from its seed, the religious propensity springs.

The "Argument from Genral Consensus" is, of course, the argument that because we know of no exceptions to the rule that all cultures have religious belief in some form, there must be "some there there" – that is, there must be something behind it. Calvin’s point isn’t so much to convince anyone that God exists, but rather to dismiss the idea that real atheists actually exist. Since everyone has access to this divine spark within him, athesis can only be the way they are by wilfully denying it.

Of course, the flaw with the "General Consensus" argument is just as obvious as it ever was: what underlies the "divine spark" might be neither divine nor a spark – it could just be a psychological tendency we all share, the same way we all (seem to) experience hunger the same way. What Calvin brings to the table that I hadn’t considered before is the idea that manipulating religion for personal ends can’t be a completely cynical exercise. The levers that charlatans are pushing are levers that they themselves are subject to. Even the religious faker believes in his own fakery a little.

That’s kind of how I feel about the left-right divide in politics too. It’s getting more and more common these days to run across conspiracy theories of the general form that because whatever’s currently passing itself off as "right" to the Left’s "left"a – and vice versa – is inherently contradictory – the kind of thing that feels like it shouldn’t cohere into an ideological category – that it can’t actually be a coherent category and thus must’ve been engineered to keep natural allies separated. Basically, George Lakoff’s question of what unifies the moral priorities (on the list of each major American political party’s priorities) answered not with the discovery of an underlying, unifying metaphor 1, but with the discovery of a conspiracy of the powers that be to keep working class people voting against their interests.

One way you always know these theories are bogus is that the proponents typically aren’t advocating a synthesis of ideas of the two parties. They’re generally pushing one or the other as the more delusional – a kind of False Consciousness. One party is always tricked and the other is insufficiently pure. If they really meant it about there being a conspiracy, then of course the mechanism would be making an improper split across natural categories, implying that both Republcans and Democrats had somthing to bring to the table, to Heal the Dark Crystal, as it were. But somehow the proponents of these theories never end up saying that. It tends to be that Bernie Sanders knows where it’s at and everyone else is kidding themselves. So, BUSTED!

But in addition I think Calvin’s argument works pretty well too. Namely, a wholly inconsistent idea can’t persist across cultures and times without there being somethign behind it. If the Republcan-Democrat divide were really wholly artificial, it would eventually collapse under its own weight, and yet it doesn’t. Moreover, it replicates itself across all advanced nations. The same things seem to go hand in hand. It isn’t just the Democrats who, in their urban hipsterdom, are "out of touch" with the values of the working class values of the people they claim to represent. Wal-Mart shoppers vote Tory in England too … and CDU/CSU in Germany, and LDP in Japan, and so on. There seem to be few, if indeed any, political ideas that are confined to any single country. Therefore, no one engineered the exact fault lines between Republicans and Democrats. If there’s a conspiracy to keep people voting against their interests (and I’m emphatically not rejecting that possibilty), it’s playing on real, pre-existing tendencies.

So what are they based on? That‘s the interesting question, and I can think of a hundred answers – meaning I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either. What I do sort of insist on, though, is that whatever the split is, it needs to be fairly abstract. I agree, you might say, with Lakoff’s observation but not his conclusion. It does seem like the list of things Republicans believe shouldn’t be very stable. But where Lakoff square that circle by trying to force a deduction from underlying cause to specific policies, I think the original observation was right: there is no direct route from the underlying cause to the policies. The underlying cause is more of a stance, an attitude. The specific policies don’t actually follow from it.

Now, I’ve done the dickish thing and saved the spoiler alert for the end: I’m not actually going to advance a theory about what the underlying faultline is. I don’t know what it is – it’s a matter of rigorous psychological investigation to dig it up. But I will put one on the table that I suspect is on the right track. From a blog comment by Niall Kilmartin on just what Trump was really up to launching those missiles at Syria:

The instinct of people like Obama is to demonstrate their eliteness by doing the opposite of the common-sense thing. The instinct of people like Trump is to demonstrate their eliteness by doing the common-sense thing in spades.

I dunno, but I really think it’s something a lot like that. There’s bluff, and double bluff. Some people try to be clever by supporting things that seem transparently irrational – implying that if it seems irrational to you, then only because your worldview is too small. They don’t really believe it, they’re just cargo culting insight. After all, an insight is something you see that others don’t, amirite? They’ve learned how to ape blowing people’s minds. That’s "bluff." Then there’s "double bluff," which asserts the common sensical as a way of making you think he’s subtle. If you killed someone, and we know the killer spilled green ink everywhere, then what better way to convince everyone you’re not the killer than by sitting around conspicuously writing in green ink that no one else has? A moderately intelligent person flaunts what he has, where an alpha intellect doesn’t mind siding with the simpletons when they’re right. Sometimes things are hiding in plain sight.

Whatever "causes" Republicans and Democrats (Labour and Tory, Liberal and Conservative, etc.) is something like that. Bluff and double bluff. Democrats are bluff. Republcians are double bluff. Specific policies don’t really follow from it, but oppositions of policies do. Abortion? Bluff has a convoluted argument about how what everyone can see is baby killing isn’t really killing. Double bluff just calls it murder. Guns? Bluff turns it into a numbers game where defending yourself against a deadly attack is more likely to get you killed than just letting the attack happen. Double bluff reminds us that self defense is a right. And that, Dr. Lakoff, is one thing that abortion and guns might have to do with each other – one that doesn’t just beg the question.

It’s important to stress here that neither Bluff nor Double Bluff has an a priori claim to righteousness. Remember, this faultline doesn’t actually predict concrete policy positions – not directly, anyway – it’s just an attitude, a stance, a disposition. Some things in life really are counterintuitive, just as Bluff would have it. Others are straightforward – as Double Bluff would. Sometimes Bluff is the right approach, and sometimes it’s not. Which issues end up in which pile depend a lot on framing. What I’m saying about Framing is that it doesn’t work how Lakoff thinks.

Lakoff thinks that framing is an exercise in persuasion. You find the right position, and then you get your side to have the more effective frame – use the simpler, more palatable metaphors. There’s something to that, of course, but it’s not very deep. The way I suspect it actually works in the majority of cases is that no matter what the issue, there will always be an opposition about it, and framing isn’t useful for persuasion so much as deciding who gets sorted into which pile. So long as the main question about abortion is whether or not it’s murder, Bluff is for legalizing it and Double Bluff wants to make it a crime. If the question were about family planning instead, I’m not so sure that would be the case. It’s really not that hard to imagine some future reality where people on the left are opposed to abortion – becuse birth is a social duty – and people on the right are for it, because reproduction is an individual prerogative. Repeat this exercise for almost any issue and I think the results of the artificial thought experiment are … highly suggestive. It’s the opposition that’s inherent, not the actual policies. Obama is Bluff. Trump is Double Bluff. So it goes.


  1. Lakoff thinks it’s "Strict Father" versus "Nurturant Mother" – based on evidence he found way up his ass.

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