Are you a Top-Down or a Bottom-Up Thinker?

We live in a time distrustful of nuance and thus skewed towards simpler forms of thought. Dichotomies are especially favoured because they’re binary. Something is either black or white – there’s no mucking about with shades of gray. Decision-making is therefore hugely simplified: you just have to choose between two extremes and, if you’re part of a tribe, you’re spared even that agony as the choice will already have been made for you.

Traditionally, those with an active interest in politics have positioned themselves either on the left (Labour, Democrat, etc) or the right (Conservative, Republican, etc). Generally speaking, the primary delineation between left and right wing politics was the collectivist mindset, on the left, and the individualist mindset, on the right. Consequently the major points of disagreement largely concerned the size and role of the state. The two political tribes often agree over the desirability of a given objective, but differ over how best to achieve it, with the left typically more inclined towards wholesale societal change while the right prefers to tweak the status quo.

While, for some, politics has always been about much more than economic and social policy, that mindset seems to have become more widespread in recent years. This is especially true of the US but increasingly also of countries that take their cultural lead from it, such as the UK. Today many allow their membership of a political tribe to dictate their position on pretty much everything. This, in turn, increases the appeal of dichotomies since they’re by far the most efficient way to ensure adherence to the party line. Not everyone is getting the memo, however, which becomes apparent when dichotomies collide.

One example of such a collision in the UK was the matter of Brexit. Already a dichotomy by definition, attitudes to the in/out referendum initially seemed to cleave neatly along party lines, with leftists preferring to stick with membership of the EU, while rightists were more likely to want to leave. But the 2019 general election confirmed a much more nuanced picture. Leftist heartlands in the north of England were among the most in favour of leaving the EU and Labour’s apparent opposition to the outcome of the referendum contributed to its worst electoral outcome for a generation.

So it turned out Brexit wasn’t simply a left/right thing after all. While wanting to be part of the European Union is superficially the more collectivist position, it seemed to be a step too far for many otherwise tribal lefties. Like layers of an onion, there are many levels of collectivism, of which supranational blocs are the outermost. Journalist David Goodhart has argued the real Brexit dichotomy was between those who value more intimate collectives such as family and local community – the “somewheres” – and those who don’t – the “anywheres”. In other words, communitarians have a distinct limit to their collectivist instincts, which can lead to them voting against their presumed political tribe.

Today’s political left seems less about collectivism or redistribution of wealth than blind dogmatism to identity politics and Critical Social Justice (CSJ). Many of that tribe appear to view themselves as the “goodies”; consequently, their every thought and impulse is viewed as, by definition, correct. There is only one ideal and only they strive for it, so they’re beyond reproach and the ends always justify the means. I describe this way of thinking as “top-down”, which can be positioned within a dichotomy with “bottom-up” at the opposite extreme. I’m far from the first to frame human thought and behaviour in this way, but think it’s worth revisiting in the current context.

In their simplest form, you could say top-down thinkers strive towards ideals, while bottom-up ones start from points of principle, with most sensible people incorporating a bit of both into their approach. It’s all very well having clearly defined principles but they just serve as a foundation on which to build towards whichever ideals a person may have in mind. Conversely, pursuing ideals in the absence of constraining principles leads to fanaticism. Religion is a good illustration of this: as a source of wisdom, strength and solace it’s benign, but when adherents take holy books literally and punish anyone who doesn’t, it becomes destructive.

Top-down thinking is currently manifesting itself in an especially malevolent way among the political left in the US. The government there has seized on the disturbing riot at the Capitol building earlier this year as justification for declaring an ongoing state of national emergency. Suddenly “white supremacy” is an existential threat justifying draconian interventions, despite considerable data and anecdotal evidence indicating the country’s continued evolution away from its apartheid past. This narrative sets the stage for a war against domestic terrorism, in which the targets seem to be defined largely along political lines.

“After the Capitol riots of January 6th, the War on Terror came home, and ‘domestic extremists’ stepped into the role enemy combatants played before,” wrote journalist Matt Taibbi recently. He went on to describe how the corporate media is largely complicit in this, with The Intercept noting “White supremacists, QAnon believers, and Trump election fraud conspiracists still pose a grave threat to our democracy and our safety.” Maybe they do, but the identified groups are all associated with the political right. What about BLM riots and Antifa assaults – do they pose no threat whatsoever?

One Intercept journalist, when challenged by Taibbi as to whether he would be naming any of the people they identified as threats by sifting through their behaviour on the social media platform Gab, responded sarcastically: “Of course I won’t be naming anyone. Racist white people must be defended at all costs.” This is classic top-down thinking – his behaviour completely justified by the righteousness of his cause. Furthermore, as a self-appointed inquisitor, his judgment is beyond reproach. For journalists to be assisting the US government and security services in the kind of political witch-hunt Joseph McCarthy would have been proud of is appalling and would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Conspicuous individualism is kryptonite to those under the sway of CSJ and “cancel culture” is their defence, in which anyone who deviates from the narrative must be immediately cast into the wilderness. This is the mindset that seems to have taken hold of many institutions in the West, leading historian Niall Ferguson to recently note it’s looking more like the authoritarian East with every passing day.

It is to offer assistance to those outcasts, and anyone in fear of becoming one, that Counterweight was formed. The specific manifestation of top-down thinking Counterweight focuses on is Critical Social Justice, which is defined by founder Helen Pluckrose as ‘a specific theoretical approach to addressing issues of prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of characteristics like race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability and body size.’ It views everything, even knowledge, as the product of power, and the only legitimate form of power is, funnily enough, that which is wielded by CSJ adherents. This is quintessential top-down thinking and is the diametric opposite to bottom-up philosophies such as liberalism.

Where bottom-up philosophies focus on the individual, on freedom, on unfettered discussion, on evidence, nuance, and principles, top-down ones favour groups, authority, censorship, narrative, dogma and ideology. Both have always existed, with the 20th century especially blighted by top-down political movements, and CSJ is just the latest, in which traditional clients such as the proletariat have been replaced by the disempowered group du jour. An especially odious feature of this parasitism is the collateral damage it causes. It often leaves client groups worse off, not least through manufacturing ideological schisms within them. It also diverts resources and support from the many people who genuinely do seek to help those in need and poisons public discourse. Political leftism wasn’t always like this and many people who still consider themselves of the left feel alienated by CSJ.

This piece started acknowledging the appeal of dichotomies but, as is nearly always the case, the best position lies somewhere in between two extremes. Of course people should have ideals and aspirations, but they should build towards them from solid ethical foundations. Top-down ideology will always produce negative societal outcomes unless it’s balanced by bottom-up principles. It is the job of bottom-up thinkers to try to guide those in the grip of unconstrained top-down thinking away from the precipice, but in many ways they’re at a disadvantage. Top-down thinking is simpler, more certain and thus more seductive. Only by appealing to reason, humility and individuality can the liberal view hope to prevail.

Scott Bicheno is a journalist and writer who recently self-published his first novel: Identity Crisis.

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  1. Interesting. Similarities to investing. In investing, you can conjecture about and discuss what you think are attractive industries, or investing themes, but you can’t build a successful portfolio based on simply that. You need to work hard to find undervalued companies from the bottom up from within the industry or theme. You can however use bottom up techniques to build a portfolio without the top down bit at all – and take a step back and say “oh look at the themes/industry weighting in my portfolio”. Top down alone cannot be a successful approach in investing, because the shitty companies outweigh the good ones always —-whereas bottom up doesn’t actually need a top down philosophy to be successful.

    • Thanks Pauline. Yes, I think this framework can apply to a lot of things as it’s primarily an epistemological model. One topical dichotomy is seems to neatly apply to is equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. In the case of the former we’re saying everyone should have an equal starting position (bottom-up), while the latter insists on an equal finishing position (top-down). I would say it’s also a good illustration of how much more liable to create tyranny and suffering the top-down way of thinking is, especially when applied without moderation.

  2. Interesting comments. The “leave” vs “remain” dichotomy touches on many factors. These include the imposition of millions of illegals into the UK (and into the USA) by the “top-down” style “Remain”. In the USA, we have the same. The imposition of this labor group is interesting. It helps only the Capitalists and owners of businesses. It’s a huge problem for workers, because increased competition for jobs means lower wages. Just as in the USA, illegal immigration is a huge issue, and is not favored by those who actually work. Regardless of which direction they are downing.

    • Yes, you could argue that politically motivated mass immigration is top-down, while a steady flow in which each application is assessed on its own merits is bottom-up.

  3. Nice. This seems to overlie the distinction between (top-down) rules-based ethics (deontology) versus (bottom-up) virtue-based, where the latter dwells on respecting human rights and dignity (as object of ethics) as a matter of intent or what the Dalai Lama calls heart (as subject of ethics).

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