Opening Thoughts about the Trump Voter

Whenever I come across an idea that seems promising, I face a dilemma: Do I tell you all as soon as I start thinking about it, or do I wait until I’ve done the research to flesh it out properly? This blog’s most successful posts are the ones where I’ve taken time, done a bunch of background reading, and thought things through carefully. Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party is a prime example. I thought about it for months, and it has gotten more than half a million hits in the last six years. Around 200 people looked at it last week.

But at the same time, there’s the question of topicality: If I know a lot of you are thinking about a question right now, shouldn’t I let you know that I’m thinking about it too? And if I have some preliminary conclusions that you might find useful, maybe I should pass them on, even if I don’t have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed yet. So that’s what I’m doing in this post.

The 74 million. As has been clear on this blog since Election Day, I was deeply disturbed to see 74 million Americans vote for a Trump second term. After everything he’s done these last four years, 74 million Americans — millions of whom didn’t vote for him in 2016 — said, “Stay. Get some more of us killed. Finish the job of destroying American democracy.”

Blessedly, 81 million Americans said, “No. Get the hell out of here.” And despite Trump pulling every lever of presidential power to defy the People and stay in office, the institutions of democracy have held. The Electoral College is voting today, and 306 electors are pledged to Joe Biden. On January 20, Trump will become an ex-president.

And yet, those 74 million Trump voters are still with us, and many of them are still believing every ridiculous thing he says, like that he really won in a landslide, but that Biden managed to manufacture vast numbers of fake votes — under the nose of a sitting president, whose Justice Department noticed nothing. In Georgia and Arizona, this vast fraud supposedly happened under the noses of Republican governors and secretaries of state, who also noticed nothing. Trump’s claims of fraud have failed to convince judges in over fifty lawsuits, including judges Trump appointed himself.

And still they believe him. Largely because of his influence over the base voters, droves of Republican elected officials have abandoned their integrity: Eighteen state attorneys general and 126 members of Congress signed on to an insane lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to throw out the 2020 election and hand Trump a second term in spite of the voters. (All three of his Supreme Court appointees refused.) If this suit had succeeded, if defeating Trump by seven million votes (in an election that Trump appointee Christopher Krebs called “the most secure in American history“) isn’t enough to take power away from him, then all future presidential elections would be meaningless. Democracy would be over in America, and quite possibly the Union would break up.

And that’s what the Republican Party supports these days.

So what do we do? How should we understand Trump voters? How should we talk to them? How do we manage to hang on to our constitutional republic in spite of them?

I’ve been thinking about those questions a lot this last month.

The too-easy answers. There are lots of explanations of the Trump voters that strike me as too easy and too satisfying to the liberal self-image. Like:

  • They’re just stupid.
  • They’re insane.
  • They’re in thrall to a mind-numbing, reality-rejecting version of Christianity.
  • They’re in Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”: racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes.

I admit, none of these explanations is entirely baseless. Trump’s support is concentrated in the less-educated portion of the population, and his supporters regularly swallow his incredible (and often self-contradictory) lies. Increasingly, they are taken in by Q-Anon or similar conspiracy theories that ought to sound crazy. White supremacists are front-and-center at Trump rallies, and Trump supporters in general love to demonize Black Lives Matter or leading women of color (like AOC). The Christian leaders who back Trump (in spite of his complete ignorance of Christianity and lack of any Christian virtue) are also likely to deny evolution, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other well established aspects of reality.

Perhaps the best reason to believe these pejorative theories of Trump support is that Trump himself seems to believe them. Like conmen everywhere, he does not admire his marks. For example, whenever he needs a distraction from something he has bungled, he picks a fight with some prominent Black person, like LeBron James or Don Lemon, or he tells the Squad to “go back” where they came from. He knows that playing a racist or sexist is a good look for him.

Restoring democracy. I resist these theories, though, because they seem self-defeating to me. If 74 million voters are just stupid or crazy or incurably bigoted, then why exactly do we want to save democracy? Shouldn’t we just disenfranchise them before they disenfranchise us? If Biden could stage a coup of his own, ignore the anti-democratic Senate, and start dictating sensible policies to mitigate climate change, guarantee health care, and reduce economic inequality, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

I reject that scenario. Messy and inefficient as democracy can be, I want to find a way back to it. I believe that when you start cutting large numbers of people out of the process, it doesn’t turn out well, even if you get some good things done in the short term.

Restoring democracy in such a way that it survives into the distant future involves reversing the polarization of recent years and shaping some kind of national consensus about who we are and what we’re trying to do. (It also involves recognizing that we have to do more than just “restore” democracy, because large swathes of the citizenry were cut out of the governing process in whatever era we might imagine going back to.) We can’t do that if we begin by writing off 74 million voters.

The answer I want. So before I even start, I have to confess that I’m looking for an answer of a certain shape: I want to find something in the Trump voter (or at least in a large number of Trump voters) that I can sympathize with and imagine making common cause around. If the core of what they want is to lock immigrant kids in cages, then I can’t go there. If the essence of Trumpism is restoring the patriarchy and sending gays back to the closet, there’s no deal to be made. But what if that’s not it?

Trump’s appeal. I view Trump’s appeal as being rooted in resentment and wounded pride, which Trump has exploited in destructive ways. Trump has turned that resentment against precisely the groups Hillary’s basket-of-deplorables quote describes: against Blacks, women, gays, immigrants, and non-Christians (especially Muslims). And Trump has offered his followers a restored pride in their race, their religion, and the power of their nation to bully other nations.

But what is that resentment and that wound really about? As I see it, Blacks, women, and the rest didn’t really do anything to the MAGA-hatters; they’ve just been offered as scapegoats. Same-sex couples haven’t harmed opposite-sex couples. Trans folk haven’t stopped the rest of us from identifying as men or women, if that’s what we want to do. Every American-Christians-are-persecuted story I’ve ever looked at has fallen apart under examination.

The key to bridging the gap — not all the way to the neo-Nazis, but to a lot of ordinary Americans who voted for Trump — ought to be finding an interpretation of that wound and that resentment that doesn’t demonize the people who feel it.

The progressive account. The progressive movement offers such an explanation, but I’m not satisfied with it. Bernie Sanders and his allies will tell you that the wound is economic: Trump supporters — particularly non-college-educated white people in rural areas — feel themselves slipping out of the middle class through no fault of their own.

The best description of that economic anxiety comes from Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

There’s a long discussion about white male privilege to be had here. (The implicit assumption is that “you” deserved the spot you had in line, and so the Blacks and women and immigrants who got moved ahead of you are interlopers.) But the essence of the problem is the unmoving line. If you’re making good progress towards the Dream, and you know you’ll get there soon enough, then who really cares if somebody else gets there a little ahead of you?

So the progressive solution is to get the line moving again by taxing the wealthy and using the money to relieve the stresses of working-class life (through government-financed health care, a higher minimum wage, and a strong safety net) and to open more avenues for upward mobility (free college and revitalized infrastructure).

Do all that, the progressives say, and working-class people will realize that Democrats are back on their side, so the Trump movement will fade away.

That seems plausible, but I don’t see much supporting evidence. I think progressives were fooled by the support Bernie got in the 2016 primaries from working-class white voters in rural areas of, say, Michigan and Wisconsin. But in 2020, when Bernie was running against a man rather than a woman, those counties flipped to Biden. It was never about the progressive economic agenda.

Depleted social capital. Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America (which I did a mini-review of in a weekly summary in 2019) is a conservative look at the Trump phenomenon. Carney argues (with data to back him up) that the core Trump voters — the people who supported him in the 2016 Republican primaries over more traditional Republican candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio — were not the people struggling economically. Instead, they tended to be successful people in failing communities. Not the guy who lost his job when the factory moved to Indonesia, but the guy who runs the Chevy dealership that sold trucks to guys who lost their jobs when the factory moved to Indonesia, or the guy whose plumbing-and-heating-contractor business is surviving, but hasn’t been nearly as prosperous since the local factory moved to Indonesia.

So Carney’s solution to the Trump-voter problem is to shore up the social capital of the small towns and rural areas in America’s heartland. This seems a little closer to the mark, though exactly how to do it is a little trickier. (James and Deborah Fallows’ book Our Towns, which highlights successful small towns, might be a place to start thinking about that.)

When I picture the view from my Midwestern hometown (Quincy, Illinois), Medicare for All and free college are nice, but they don’t really solve the problem. They make it easier for people to survive as individuals, and to educate their kids so they can move away and succeed in places that still have opportunity. But they don’t provide a vision of how Quincy itself thrives into the future and makes opportunities for its children to put down roots without moving away.

What all of this leaves out, though, is the kind of resentment we’re seeing right now, directed at doctors and the government officials who listen to them. The people who make a scene at Target because they don’t want to wear masks — that’s not economic anxiety or even community-social-capital anxiety. That’s something else.

It’s related to the own-the-libs anger that shows up on social media. These are the people who positively rejoice when Trump makes fun of the disabled or claims that he couldn’t possibly have molested all the women who accuse him, because they’re just too ugly. That’s not about fear that immigrants will take your job, or concern that you won’t be taken care of if you get sick, or worry that your grand-kids will have to grow up in San Francisco.

Caste. So there are two other pieces of the puzzle I’m trying to integrate in, and this is where I’m going to need some time to get the fit right. Both are related to books I finished reading this week. One is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which makes the observation that a caste system provides a sense of security to people who aren’t in the bottom caste, because they know someone will always be below them. That isn’t just (or even primarily) an economic security, it’s a social and psychological security.

So the guy who believes that he’s white trash takes comfort in the idea that he’s at least white trash. As long as whites are on top, he has some claim to self-worth.

Wilkerson raises the idea that poor and working-class whites whose votes for Trump seem to run against their economic interests (because Trump’s policies may take away their health insurance and won’t raise their minimum wage) may have a broader view of their interests than just economics. They may see their whiteness as a birthright they aren’t willing to sell.

Something similar might be going on with the Christians who refuse to sell cakes or do floral arrangements for same-sex marriages. It’s absurd to believe that God cares about these lines in the sand. (Neither cakes nor flowers play any sacramental role in Christian marriage rituals.) But if these people’s self-worth comes from the social supremacy of Christianity, then making a stand that says “We’re still on top” will be important to them.

This isn’t bigotry in the hating sense. The person who feels an attachment to everybody staying in “their place” may not have any conscious animosity towards people who are assigned to different places. But the current system gives that person a “place” somewhere that isn’t the bottom, and if the system falls apart, he doesn’t know where he’ll be.

So now the question becomes: What alternative self-worth do we have to offer such a person? And how can we communicate this offer to him or her?

Defining reality. One of the hardest things for me to accept about Trump supporters is their willing acceptance of all sorts of absurdities. As various Facebook memes have been putting it lately: The pandemic is a hoax, but Trump deserves credit for producing the vaccine that I’m going to refuse to take.

Bill Barr was wonderful until he refused to go along with the Biden-stole-the-election lie, and now he’s part of the Deep State. Amy Coney Barrett has gone from savior to villain in just a few weeks. The only way to know what’s real these days is to follow Trump’s tweets, and be prepared to change your mind as he does, from one moment to the next.

The 2019 book Democracy and Truth by Sophia Rosenfeld has some clues about what’s going on here.

Every society has some process for reaching consensus on what is real, what is possible, what categories people need to keep track of, and so on. (One key element of “wokeness” is recognizing the social construction of both race and gender. Yes, there is an underlying physical reality: Some people’s skin is darker than other’s, and some people have organs that other people lack. But the exact boundaries of these categories and what — if any — significance they have varies from one society to another.) Different people play different roles in this process, with some being more empowered than others. One of the not-well-understood aspects of Trumpism is that Trumpists feel alienated from the reality-defining class.

This has been an issue for years when it comes to Christianity and evolution. The scientific community had a debate in the 1800s, and settled on the consensus that Darwinian evolution really happened, while the young-Earth account of Genesis is just a myth. Lots of Christians don’t like that conclusion, and have tried for years to argue that their definition of reality deserves as much or more deference than the scientists’ definition.

The same thing happens with climate change and all sorts of other ideas that get less attention: There’s an expert class that defines the social consensus about reality, but lots of people are in rebellion against its conclusions. At a mundane level, this plays out on the front page of The New York Times every day: Some things are really happening while others aren’t. And some things are happening but aren’t worth noting.

In general, different people are involved in different reality-defining processes. And even if you’re not involved in any of them, you might feel some connection to the people who are. For example, I play no role in deciding whether the various Covid-19 vaccines are safe. But I have friends who are biologists, and they have friends are are involved. I’ve also participated in a different research community (mathematics), so I have a general grasp of the peer-review process, and so forth. In addition, there was a point in my life when I was deciding what field to specialize in, and if I had made a different choice, I might be working with Dr. Fauci today. (Or at least I believe that.)

But many people in society feel completely separated from that process. They have opinions on the subject, but nobody cares. In fact, nobody cares about any of their opinions about what’s real and what isn’t. They don’t know anybody who decides what’s real, and they aren’t aware of ever having had a chance to enter the reality-defining class. People like them don’t define reality. Somebody else does.

That’s the kind of alienation that makes you throw a fit in Target. This mask isn’t a moon rocket, it’s a piece of cloth. Why is your opinion about it better than mine?

That alienation will also lead you to conspiracy theories, where reality gets defined by an alternative community in alternative ways. The folks in Q-Anon care what you think. Dr. Fauci doesn’t. He thinks he’s better than you are.

Trump consistently stands up for these alienated folks by thumbing his nose at the reality-defining class as a whole. There’s a pandemic? Maybe, maybe not. Doctors say masks help, but I think hydroxychloroquine is better. My friend the My Pillow Guy has a theory; why don’t we listen to him?

So here’s a thought I’m still wrestling with: How do we make the reality-defining class more accessible? Or more transparent? Or at least less off-putting?

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  • Geoff Arnold  On December 14, 2020 at 11:28 am

    Insightful. Epistemology matters.

  • Jennifer Schwartz McClain  On December 14, 2020 at 11:44 am

    I wonder if it is worth looking at the transition to the age of enlightenment and seeing if there are societal clues there.

    • Steve Spang  On December 14, 2020 at 12:05 pm

      Excellent idea. As a former science teacher, I feel we have collectively failed in our education mission. Instead of teaching in a way that instills critical thinking skills, we find all is forgotten or discarded from schooling as much of our society is saddled with a growing contemporary Dark Age. This is not what we thought would be our teaching outcomes. How do we turn the page here?

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:11 am

      “Democracy and Truth” does start with the Enlightenment.

  • Karen Hughes  On December 14, 2020 at 11:58 am

    Have you seen this article? It argues that grievance is addictive and that Trump manipulates that addiction by promoting grievance.

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:19 am

      Thanks. I had noticed the headline but hadn’t read the article. I like the insight that when Trump strikes out at others, he creates grievances in them. So you can catch the disease from your enemies as well as your friends.

  • ookpik  On December 14, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you! I found this very helpful, and “Democracy and Truth” goes onto the TBR list.

    Also, this might amuse you:

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:23 am

      That might be a closing for some Sift in the near future.

  • Carol  On December 14, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    To caste, LBJ addressed it decades ago: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”

    To the rest, education, but not educating to a job. Educating to citizenship. This would take a revolution in thinking. The purpose of education is to make you a better citizen able to fully participate in politics.

    This also needs to be addressed:the 40 hour work week, which is usually involved in trivial jobs. Work fewer hours at a job, spend more hours being a member of the community. Once upon a time, women held the community together. Nowadays, they’ve been sucked into the “productivity” maw. The answer isn’t cutting women out of the workforce, it’s liberating men from the myth of the job and involving them in the community, in childcare, on the education of the young, caring for the weak, etc.

    Do I think we can solve this soon? No, we are in a process of consumption, as the old dies to make way for the new. It’s a painful gut wrenching death. Will it occur soon enough for us to see the fruits? No. Can we help plant the new seeds? Yes.

    That is my hope.

  • Marvin Fretwell  On December 14, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    I think we discount propaganda far too much when we seek answers to the divide. Who told the Christians they were being persecuted? Who told them we were founded on Christian principles? Who told them the liberals were the cause of the Nation’s troubles? They didn’t pick this out of their own minds. It was planted there and carefully watered and fertilized by the news source they have in common.

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:27 am

      No doubt. But the question is what to do about it. Any system where the media remains truly free is open to manipulation by nefarious interests.

  • NANCY BROWNING  On December 14, 2020 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks! As always, I appreciate your take. I think a big part of the problem is the idea of Americans as “rugged individualists” rather than part of something bigger than oneself. There is a need to see and value the common good.

  • Barry Mauer  On December 14, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    “Messy and inefficient as democracy can be, I want to find a way back to it. I believe that when you start cutting large numbers of people out of the process, it doesn’t turn out well, even if you get some good things done in the short term.”
    I agree that the cost of excluding a group of 74 million people is extremely high, but it is also fair to point out that these people have excluded themselves and are hostile to dialogue or attempts to reintegrate them into a democratic (small d) framework. The situation is in many regards similar to that of the 1850s, prior to the establishment of the Confederacy. Furthermore, the price of reintegrating Confederate states after the war was an anti-black consensus that we are still dealing with. Frankly, I am quite pessimistic.

  • John schoonover  On December 14, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Why are Western European countries, which have similar societies to the US and which provided the emigrants whose descendants are reality deniers, not significantly subject to the very same problem? Of course, there are reality deniers in those countries, but they are mere laughingstocks, not a threat to the manageability of society.

    • Barry Mauer  On December 14, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      The right wing in the US invested heavily in creating counter-media, a counter intelligentsia, counter-institutions, and counter-publics. These took decades but paid off big in the 1970s and thereafter. See Jen Senko’s The Brainwashing of My Dad.

      • John Schoonover  On December 14, 2020 at 1:13 pm

        I guess the centrists efforts in that area have lead to such reality denying mania as the belief in a Putinized Plot to puppetize Trump. Would that also explain why good hearted people believe that American invasions of hapless countries are for their own good?

      • Barry Mauer  On December 14, 2020 at 1:18 pm

        Putin’s leverage over Trump is very real, though we don’t know all of the details (business interests, compromat, etc.). How else do you explain Trump agreeing with Putin over his own intelligence services? At the very least, Trump is Putin’s “useful idiot.” By calling the “Putin’s puppet” story a “reality denying mania,” you are setting up a “both sides are wrong” story that is itself wrong.

  • Bill Dysons  On December 14, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    This post also helps explain the recent WSJ editorial criticizing Jill Biden for being referred to as doctor. The title “Dr.” in our society – especially if it’s not referring to a medical doctor – refers to what Doug is describing perfectly. It’s a title reserved for people in the “reality-defining” business. And if you’re a Trump voter, the only type of “Dr.” that you can see the benefit from and that affects your own life is your own physician…so of course that’s the only “Dr.” that the WSJ author would claim to be legitimate. Excellent and thought provoking post, as always, Doug!

  • Danny  On December 14, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I think there’s an important connection between the caste, reality-defining, and progressive cases. America is much more sorted by class and geography than before: in the immediate post-war era, economic growth was geographically diffuse since manufacturing played a major role. At the same time, the major defining line was the colour line. Hence, even if I were a white high-school dropout, my neighbour might well be a white doctor or lawyer, which makes me much less likely to feel alienated from the ‘reality-defining class’ since to me, the representative of that class isn’t some name on a national paper, but Jim from down the road.

    But the last 40-50 years have involved substantial re-sorting. Now the reality-defining class disproportionately lives in big cities as that is where all the highest-paying jobs have gone. On top of this, the plutocratic class has opened to a small number of minority groups. So now, we have three groups sorted apart from each other: the “elite”, regardless of race (but still disproportionately white), live together, then the poor and middle class remain racially separated because they haven’t moved from before. And thus, non-elite whites now see the professional class as truly a class apart and perceive the professional class as telling the non-elites to give up their racial / caste privileges, while simultaneously hoarding their own class privilege. Hence the thrill at ‘owning the libs’

    Now I don’t have a good answer for how to reverse this because I’m not as sanguine as the progressives who think reducing class privilege will suffice – whites really will need to give up caste privilege, which will be a painful psychic and material loss, especially to non-elite whites. Furthermore, membership within the professional class is not in itself protection from economic hardship – plenty of professionals are crushed by student debt / childcare / healthcare costs – and so similarly fear giving up what class protections they have.

  • Barry Mauer  On December 14, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    Doug calls the “They’re insane” answer as too easy. I disagree. Recent work by Bandy X. Lee (The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump and Profile of a Nation: Trump’s Mind, America’s Soul), Steven Hassan (The Cult of Trump), and my own work (Deadly Delusions: Right-Wing Death Cult) provide strong evidence that impaired mental functioning is at work in the right-wing fanaticism we are witnessing. Additionally, there is very little that is “simple” about the phenomenon.

  • joeirvin  On December 14, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    Doug, a thought: To “restore democracy” implies that democracy existed; but aren’t we a plutocracy now and ever since the Founding? Wasn’t it the economic elite of the colonies arguing over money with their English overlords that led to the creation of a “United States”? The economic elites in one way or another has “run the country” ever since. The Vietnam conflict and 1960s of “free love” and “flower children” so frightened the Olins, Kochs, Coors et al that the plutocrats decided the country needed to be re-educated; thus, the Heritage Foundation and similar rightwing outfits. And the plutocrats really got their way beginning with the Reagan era. Thus, the dysfunction of today while the rich get richer by keeping the poor poor and screwing everybody else.

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:41 am

      You’ve reminded me of an irreverent world-history-for-kids book I read decades ago and forgot the name of. I remember this from the section about the Punic Wars. “Carthage was ruled by its rich men and was therefore a plutocracy. Rome was ruled by its rich men and was therefore a republic.”

      I don’t think the US has ever been entirely one thing. Democracy has always been an ideal that we never lived up to, but it has also never been entirely meaningless.

      One of the themes in “Democracy and Truth” is the eternal conflict between populism and rule-by-experts. Governing requires expertise, but an expert class that isn’t accountable to the people always becomes self-serving. The rich can take advantage of either side in this conflict.

  • Lou Doench  On December 14, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    “So here’s a thought I’m still wrestling with: How do we make the reality-defining class more accessible? Or more transparent? Or at least less off-putting?”

    At the beginning of the century I thought the Atheist/Skeptic/Humanist movement had a chance to accomplish a lot in this area. But it was squandered on cults of personality, toxic masculinity and transphobia. Just when we were needed the most our national institutions were descending into corruption and sex scandals.

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:46 am

      A revived Humanism is a dream of mine also. The turn-of-the-century Progressive movement was largely about an idealized loyalty to Truth and Fact. (That’s where the vision of “objective” journalism comes from.) I’d like to see a kind of “religious” revival of this vision, where people pursue Truth with the same fervor that religions raise.

  • Michael Flanagan  On December 14, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    Doug, You’re on to something here. My thought has to do with being the “underdog.” When one identifies as an underdog, one might be more inclined to identify with other “underdogs,” whether they be actual underdogs, or they only claim that status. Mr. Drumpf continuously portrays himself as a Billionaire who is an Underdog. If you can’t get past that incongruity, then you must be part of the “Elite,” and not part of the “underdogs.”

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:48 am

      One essential mystery is why the “elite” consists of intellectuals and not the very rich. That’s one thing that points me toward the process of defining reality.

  • Guest  On December 14, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks for sticking your neck out and revealing in-process thoughts, Doug. Always appreciate a peek behind the curtains. And congrats on passing 500K on your Tea Party entry. If there was any justice in social media algorithms, I’m sure you’d be seeing even higher numbers.

    Re what you’ve laid out here, your weakest link may be the treatment of progressives. Your argument against them rests on comparing a few cherry-picked counties from two races that were unfolding under two notably different dynamics by the time the primaries reached Wisconsin and Michigan, and as such doesn’t even rise to the level of flimsy. You also exclude the shinning example of a White House committed to progressive bread and butter solutions. John Nichols’s book on Henry Wallace “The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party” may be helpful to you here. FDR’s case proved that governing boldly to the left and delivering the progressive economic populist goods is not only compatible with establishing the US as the world superpower and a growing middle class, but also with so thoroughly diminishing the Republican right that they had to institute term limits to stop all the winning.

    One more point on your treatment of progressives – I don’t believe that their case is that the wound is ONLY economic, although this seems to be a common misunderstanding. Adolph Reed Jr’s article “The Myth of Class Reductionism” will be helpful here.

    Re your last two puzzle pieces, I think there’s good reason why they aren’t fitting. There’s something that feels very neoliberal about the idea that we can dictate to political rivals alternative systems of self-worth to begin with. Not seeing how that approach can break out of a spectrum that runs from self-contradictory to quixotic. Better to improve the material conditions of the populace and thus protect more freedom for them to explore self-worth on their own terms under less dire circumstance.
    On making reality-defining more accessible, transparent, and less off-putting, part of the issue is that the internet has and continues to complicate the whole thing to the point where reality is being defined by anyone with a compelling conspiracy theory and the pols who exploit them for personal gain. Doesn’t look like this is a genie we’re getting back into the bottle any time soon. That aside, the traditional realty deciders (NYT, party leadership, etc) still enjoy enormous influence, and have not, in the last few decades at least, shown any meaningful accessibility to views not in lock-step with the reigning neoliberal order in terms of defining problems/injustices and, if it gets that far, the scope of solutions presented. The insular confidence of this group makes it all the more off-putting even as their standing appears to grow more tenuous in the digital guilded age. But, pulling back, the attempt to dictate reality-defining may be as doomed as dictating self-worth. Is having a Big Brother decide what reality is for everyone a goal worth pursuing?

  • Evelyn Lemoine  On December 14, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    This is absolutely spot on. You have articulated many thoughts that have been rattling around in my head. If we are going to stand a chance of moving forward under President Biden, we MUST acknowledge the 74 million people who voted for trump. And despite our incredulity that ANYONE could vote for trump, we must stop the false narrative that they are all stupid, or that they “voted against their own interests” that has been part of liberal narrative for years–long before trump. People do NOT vote against their own interests–unless those “interests” are as OTHERS define them. That doesn’t mean that I believe they made wise choices, only that they made the choices that they believed were most likely to benefit them. We must start respecting their right to make what seem to be unwise choices to us–and begin to provide answers to their questions and solutions to their problems that meet their needs as THEY perceive them. I am not Pollyanna–I know we will never win over all 74 million. But we must figure out how to at least get along with the vast majority of trump voters.

    • D. Michael Wells  On December 14, 2020 at 4:54 pm

      What do you mean when you say we “must acknowledge the 74 million who voted for trump”? What language do you propose to use to do this? The language of reason? Doesn’t work. The language of science? They reject science. Is this simply saying “I feel your pain?” Trump voters are operating from their amygdala not their pre-frontal cortex. They are angry and afraid. This is not “economic anxiety” but an expression of white grievance. I will “get along” with Trump voters when they stop confronting people with loaded firearms, conspiring to kidnap and assassinate public officials and belligerently refuse to take basic precautions during a pandemic. If you don’t believe this, watch Trump voters dig in their heels when presented with facts and their actions that contradict they self-processed Christian beliefs. The solution: Outvote them by preventing voter suppression and minority rule through structural problems such as the Electoral System.

  • RevLinda  On December 14, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Two people close to me voted for Trump. Both of them at one time were rational and thoughtful people. They changed suddenly after the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. Then began the Fox News and all their kin. Trying to talk issues with them is absolutely crazy-making. With one of them, we just don’t share political stuff, like the elephant in the living room. With the other, it seems we are estranged now.

  • Donald Rogers  On December 14, 2020 at 3:37 pm

    Those last few paragraphs nail it! I have considered myself liberal since ’07 when I campaigned hard for Obama in Humboldt County, Nevada. But the smug superiority displayed in Mrs. Clintons characterizations of her opponents as “deplorables” and the disdain of the DNC toward unions and the working class for the last forty years makes me want to “own the liberals” myself.

    • John Schoonover  On December 14, 2020 at 3:40 pm

      Hear, hear!

    • Barry Mauer  On December 14, 2020 at 3:42 pm

      I too am angry about the DNC turning on unions, but that doesn’t make me turn towards fascism as the answer. Hillary Clinton referring to opponents as “deplorable” was absolutely true and in fact didn’t go far enough. That you see this truth as evidence of her being “smug” is a troubling symptom of people who have already gone too far to the dark side. “Owning the libs” is a truly terrible goal, something that a junior high bully would admire.

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 9:55 am

      Hillary’s “deplorables” speech has been widely misrepresented. She never called “her opponents” deplorable or said that people became deplorable because they supported Trump.

      Instead, she was asking Republicans who were thinking about voting for Trump to look around at who they’d be siding with: racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes. Those were the people she said were deplorable.

      The speech lent itself to misrepresentation, and so was unwise. But what she was saying was entirely true.

    • Dale Moses  On December 17, 2020 at 4:15 pm

      The DNC did not leave the Unions. The unions*(well membership) left the DNC and joined with the anti-unionists. Pro-Union policies are still a core aspect of democratic policy. But union membership doesn’t seem to care about it as much as they care about punishing other people.

  • Bolling Lowrey  On December 14, 2020 at 4:03 pm

    I feel it is America’s leadership and Congress economically “taking the easy way out” for decades:. to posit USA as a “rule of law”, yet cut wages and hire illegals who can not complain. NO firm laws to prevent this travesty. This wrecked the union workers, who are “replaced”, but in their minds they know what happened. Corporations shipping other work out, and pay low, low wages compared to US wages, yet not one bit cut price of manufactured goods shipped back to US.. Profits balloon, but only to executives. Again, replaced US types are fully aware of the “switch”. So, what is traded w/in the country??? Wall Street trades….any teeny weeny tax on any of the millions of daily trades? Nary a bit. Any citizen notice? Yep. trades…here again, Congress (and citizens) are fully aware manufacturing wage earners are not in the US,, nor the old manufacturing base in the US which was taxed.. But Wall Street traders, who are here just seem to be playing eternal shell games with one another and gut Glass-Steagall Act and substitute it with Gramm Leach-Bliley Act. and this was done by Democrats (!) in 1999.

    are “many” citizens pissed….maybe just a tad.perhaps vote Trump??? ya’ think???

  • Anonymous  On December 14, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    Your summary of Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Wilkerson’s Caste, and Rosenfeld’s Truth and Democracy is much appreciated. Subconscious status anxiety often triggers motivated reasoning to protect individual or group identity injuries. If one accepts the erroneous premise that humanity is playing an Us v. Them zero-sum game (win-lose), it makes sense to uphold constructs such as caste when faced with societal volatility/change — in so doing reaffirming the long standing social hierarchy. Ranking people in this way does in fact define and create social reality, even if it’s based on arbitrary distinctions. Which is useful and empowering if one feels alienated from the conventional authorities on truth (“mainstream media,” academic experts). Could we make the reality-defining project more pluralistic, egalitarian, and antifragile by cultivating a non-zero-sum game worldview: a win-win alternative style of civilization instead of the, win-lose model? I suspect that would make it, at a minimum, “less off putting.”

    These might be of interest to you, Doug:
    “Game B”

    “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond”

    “The Resentment That Never Sleeps”

  • Bill  On December 14, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    It took decades to climb into this hole and barring a cataclysmic, existential, crisis-level event, it will take decades to climb back out…if ever.
    So how do we make the reality defying class more accessible?…….
    Probably consistent efforts on several fronts starting with education in elementary school through post grad levels. Critical thinking skills need to be taught in a formal, sustained fashion. Yes, some of the trumpers are insane, crazy, under the spell of some distorted understanding of Christianity, or just plain deplorable.
    However, my observation has been that the majority are simply intellectually lazy, intellectually dishonest and carry a value system that is largely selfish if not borderline, deplorable. These attributes seem to have thrived in an environment of benign educational neglect. (…and this goes for both the left and right)
    As for immediate solutions, I’m less optimistic.
    Barring a major crisis that impacts them personally and dramatically, for most adults, I’m afraid that cake is baked. Time and attrition may be the only answer.

  • Rich  On December 14, 2020 at 9:44 pm

    Every now and then Doug and I chat about some of these ideas and remember some of our Midwestern (mostly high school) buddies and how many of them ended up being Trump Voters in 2016 and again in 2020. I fantasize about testing some of the notions Doug cites here with a few of those buddies at the Main Street coffee shops that are still open in my Southern Indiana County. I’d particularly like to meet with a friend whose family had the farm next to ours. She had and still has a way of getting to the point. We see each other at funerals from time to time. She says things like, “I sat in that algebra class with you for an entire year, and to this day I still do not know what x is.” She and more than half of those buddies are college educated. I’d like Doug and I to sit down for a couple hours with her and 2 or 3 others and get their responses to just the main thread of Doug’s thoughts. Meet again next day with her and 2 or 3 different Trump supporters. Do this for a couple weeks then we’d be run out of coffee shops in this county. She would probably agree to this and be the spokesperson for the outcome…if anything. She’d need Doug and I to agree to just one condition: “Present your’ highfalutin’ ideas in a way we all can grasp, then just shut up a listen. If we want you to say something, we’ll ask.”

  • Creigh Gordon  On December 15, 2020 at 9:00 am

    “But in 2020, when Bernie was running against a man rather than a woman, those counties flipped to Biden. It was never about the progressive economic agenda.”

    This was a different election. This was a flight to safety.

    I believe that Bernie Sanders would have done better against Trump than Mrs. Clinton in 2016, though I freely admit I could be wrong. I don’t think anyone could have done better in 2020 than Joe Biden, and several candidates could easily have done worse. (For what it’s worth, if Mrs. Clinton had been elected we’d have been approaching the 2020 election with 6 Supreme Court justices and zero dollars for Covid relief.)

    But more to the point, I don’t see Sanders’ vision as primarily economic, I see it as populist. He’s very close today with Rev. William Barber, and very close historically with Martin Luther King (who did not lead a Black Peoples March on Washington, but a Poor Peoples March.)

    • Guest  On December 15, 2020 at 3:08 pm

      Thanks for this, Creigh. I’ve been advocating in Sift pages for years that Sanders is the heir to MLK’s political project mantle (with AOC coming up behind him); and that Clinton/Biden centrists are likewise the modern day versions of what MLK noted as the biggest stumbling block to freedom in his day, the white moderate. Glad to see I’m not the only one around here making these connections!

      Full agreement on Doug’s treatment of progressives, I made a similar point above from a slightly different angle. Only point of contention is that I think Sanders alone had at least a shot at doing better than Biden in 2020. Biden was (intentionally) out of the spotlight for much of 2020, and emerged occasionally only to say that we have to heal the soul of the nation by…doing nothing more than returning to the status quo. In the actual election Biden underperformed and Trump overperformed polling…I think Sanders runs a better head to head campaign than that low bar. He also enjoys a better advantage among a lot of Latinx populations and the independents and late-deciders that apparently broke for Trump to upset the polling numbers. I know at least one apathetic right-leaning person who declined to vote in 2020, but would have voted Sanders had he been on the ticket. So I give Sanders, in this hypothetical, an outside shot at flipping Texas. Biden woefully underperformed there, especially compared with Clinton in 2020 in border counties where Trump picked off a lot of rural Latinx votes. Given what Sanders did in the Nevada primary, I think it’s at least on the table. But it’s angels on the head of pin at this point…in any case, thanks again.

  • Reg Snider  On December 15, 2020 at 10:24 am

    Important thinking, Doug. No one I know of analyzes such a problem better than you.

    As I’m able, I’m also going to consider to what extent a conventional “spiritual/psychological” analysis explains the Trump supporter phenomenon. Is it simply sin? Are they just being evil? The sin of hubris? Of self-righteousness? Of egotism? Of not accepting – or knowing – one’s place in the true scheme of things? Humility is a virtue and there’s power in it. It seems to be a virtue they lack (for all their insecurity). One thinks of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Overweening ego is a fundamental shortcoming. If that’s the problem, then it suggests that a spiritual/psychological approach is the path to health.

  • krohde2014  On December 15, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    Although I like a lot of what you have to say, I think you are somewhat blind to the things that are operating on the Left. Elements of the left have become ideological to such an extent that they alienate traditional enlightenment liberals. They don’t believe in free speech. They call logic and evidence based arguments a part of “the White Supremacy Culture”. They affirm many things around sex and gender that are not supported by science and call people bigots who don’t agree. They stick up for violence by those they feel sorry for. Many have been anti-vaxers. Many are using McCarthyite tactics against college professors and examining people so hard for being PC that their teachers are afraid and many, many, comedians hate going to college campuses. I am a longtime Liberal – Progressive who liked Warren and liked Sanders’ ideas, but as an Enlightenment Liberal I find the “woke”, ideological, anti-rational, anti-democratic, left nearly as galling as the Trumpers — and less tolerant than my Trump relatives. This emotional response to the ideologues and even grifters inhabiting the left was so strong that I not only became reconciled to having Biden but came around to being happy he was our candidate, as he seemed a bit less likely than my candidates to accomodate the anti-democratic, anti-science, intolerant, and often cruel people on the left. Some days, I would like to “own” those people, too. So I am a little less critical than most of the middle ground Trump supporters who see both sides cherry picking the truth — and for all the right’s lies, believing that Climate Change isn’t real, doesn’t ask you to upend all you believe in about basic reality, the way eschewing logic, claiming sex is not biological, or looting is a valid expression of anger does. If the left wants a return to fact based, logic based, decision making, they could start with challenging the ideologues on their side rather than going along with calls (as did UU’s this year) to “abolish the police”.

    • Barry Mauer  On December 15, 2020 at 3:56 pm

      This criticism of the left is itself blind. “They don’t believe in free speech.” The left critiques abusive speech and points out the ways that privileged people have more “speech” than unprivileged people do. “They call logic and evidence based arguments a part of ‘the White Supremacy Culture.'” The left critiques the way that Enlightenment reasoning was used to justify colonialism and genocide. “They affirm many things around sex and gender that are not supported by science and call people bigots who don’t agree.” Such as? “They stick up for violence by those they feel sorry for.” Examples? “Many have been anti-vaxers.” Examples? “Many are using McCarthyite tactics against college professors” – really? I am a college professor and see for the most part that the only faculty who have been sanctioned for their political views (i.e. those standing up for Palestinian rights) are those who have fallen prey to the right. “abolish the police” – seems reasonable to me for those facing the pointed end of the police state stick to make this call.

      • krohde2014  On December 16, 2020 at 4:22 pm

        Abolish the police is not a position that rational people hold. Left, right, black, white, except for loud ideologues. “They” are the illiberal left on campus, in many cultural institutions, holding sway among the “woke”. Most progressives and many moderates and now some conservatives are for fixing policing, corruption, training, accountability, but even and perhaps especially communities most negatively affected by bad policing don’t want no policing, they want good policing, since they are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than the ideologues of the left.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 16, 2020 at 4:27 pm

        The police abolition movement is not crackpot or extreme. See,the%20ideology%20of%20police%20reformists.

      • John Schoonover  On December 16, 2020 at 5:01 pm

        How do you expect to “fix” cops who are recruited for low intelligence and lack of empathy?

    • John Schoonover  On December 15, 2020 at 5:41 pm

      The behavior you describe is not leftist, but fascist. They are also fanatically and irrationally opposed to nuclear energy and don’t understand that their windmills have as much chance as did Quixote to lead us out of the fossil fuel trap.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 15, 2020 at 9:29 pm

        Who the heck is “they”?

      • krohde2014  On December 16, 2020 at 4:28 pm

        John, I agree that it is like facism, but they are on the left. Look at what happened at Evergreen, Yale, MIddlebury. The rape center closed it wouldn’t admit a biological man who looked like a man and claimed to be a woman. Professors here and abroad who are regularly reported by students and have to go through disciplinary processes, guilty or not, for saying something a student is triggered by.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 16, 2020 at 4:31 pm

        Campus protests on the left are not fascist but define themselves in direct opposition to fascism. To be so concerned about these protests but to fail to denounce the actions of actual armed fascists plotting to kidnap and kill governors is, well, a bit, um, well, uh . . .

      • John Schoonover  On December 16, 2020 at 5:10 pm

        They are not on the left. They espouse “identity politics” that are universally associated with the right and fascism. The recent greatest espousers of identity politics were, of course the Nazis. Identity (separatist) movements in Brittany and Québec, for example, sided with the Nazis against there French and Canadian “oppressors”. Identity is a “divide” and conquer” technique that ruling elites have used to foment disarray among their opponents since time immemorial.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 16, 2020 at 5:12 pm

        Identity politics is fascist? Explain that to the LGBTQ+ movement.

      • John Schoonover  On December 16, 2020 at 5:17 pm

        Why should anybody have to explain to a fascist that his/her/its ideology is fascist? The point is to crush it, not engage in dialogue with it.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 16, 2020 at 5:18 pm

        You think we should crush the LGBTQ+ movement because it is fascist?

      • Barry Mauer  On December 16, 2020 at 5:22 pm

        You do realize that the Nazis made LGBTQ+ people wear pink stars, right?

      • John Schoonover  On December 16, 2020 at 5:29 pm

        That makes total sense. The reason for identity politics is to pit identities against each other. Just because the Nazis didn’t like gays doesn’t mean that the gay identity ideology isn’t also fascist.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 17, 2020 at 4:29 am

        People who are marginalized, excluded, and put to death because of their race, gender, sexuality, etc. have an incentive to change the status of their identity.The identity politics that you decry is a reaction against oppression. It is not fascism to want to change one’s status in this way. It is fascism to oppress people based on identity.

      • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 10:10 am

        I hesitate to get in the middle of this, but I do want to make one point: There are two very different kinds of “identity politics”, and I think it’s a mistake to lump them together. On the one hand, you might be trying to unite people behind an oppressed identity for the purpose of ending the oppression, as, say, the Civil Rights movement did. Or you could be trying to unite people behind a dominant identity for the purpose of maintaining their dominance.

        So Black Lives Matter and white supremacy are both “identity politics”, but I don’t see the usefulness of talking about them as if they were two sides of a coin.

      • John Schoonover  On December 17, 2020 at 11:11 am

        MLK united black and white working class people in an effort to alleviate to oppression they both suffered from. That is not identity politics; it’s class politics.

        “Black and white together we shall overcome.”

  • nicknielsensc  On December 15, 2020 at 7:07 pm

    Something else to consider, Doug, is the reach of right-wing media. Rush Limbaugh started his grievance-fests in 1988 on a few radio stations; today, you can listen to him for three hours every day almost everywhere in the nation. Fox News has been the go-to “news” station for conservatives since 1993. Add the internet, Breitbart, OAN, NewsMax, Alex Jones, and the rest, and there’s an entire media ecosystem to perpetuate the idea that libruls, elites, and “those people” are taking something from the Real Americans.

    • John Schoonover  On December 15, 2020 at 7:35 pm

      MSNBC leads the pack in branding those folks deplorables. My sense is that the media owners tailor their propaganda to different sectors of the population based on those sectors’ perceived prejudices.

      • Barry Mauer  On December 15, 2020 at 9:30 pm

        Can you define propaganda?

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 10:16 am

      The different structure of right-wing and left-wing media was pointed out in Yochai Benkler’s “Network Propaganda”, which I discussed when it came out in 2018.

      The gist is that right-wing media is much more self-contained and much more of an echo chamber than left-wing media. That makes its audience an easier target for propaganda.

  • Choub  On December 16, 2020 at 5:50 am

    May I suggest you to read this Quora answer from Anthony Zarrella about why he chose to vote for Trump?

    • Barry Mauer  On December 16, 2020 at 7:53 am

      Zarella is just disguising his will for white supremacy and raw power in constitutional garb. Republicans have shown us repeatedly that the constitution – and any principles whatsoever – are meaningless to them.

  • A.R. Hicks  On December 16, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    To begin with, we might like to examine what the reality-makers are defining as ‘real.’ Sure, facts are facts, science is science, but that does not begin to cover what eons of philosophical teachings have revealed about the nature of reality. There is a bigger question here and it has to do with the egoic notion of separation. When people (highly educated or of limited education) identify with the conditioning that they are separate from others, you will always have conflict. There is a concerted effort by highly qualified spiritual teachers to reveal the nature of consciousness—the nature of reality—that has been hidden or made taboo in order to maintain certain societal structures. There are constructs in the form of laws and constitutions that address these values, but what underlies these ideas usually requires a personal search for truth and understanding. While the drive to discover these philosophical principles is rare in terms of numbers, there comes a tipping point when enough people begin to realize it is our only way past such intransigence as thinking one is above another, rather than recognizing our shared humanity. At this point it is a tough fix, maybe only one person at a time can come to this understanding.

    • weeklysift  On December 17, 2020 at 10:22 am

      There’s also a structural problem. I don’t think it’s insurmountable, but it gives the self-centered view an unfair advantage.

      Namely: People who seek power over others tend to get power over others, while people who don’t seek power don’t get it. So the world is shaped by power-seekers in ways disproportionate to their numbers.

  • donslloyd  On December 17, 2020 at 2:25 am

    I also found Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land very helpful in coming to grips with that 74 million voters. An additional perspective can be found in Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America.”

    In 1997, Rorty wrote:
    “The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots … One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

  • songerk  On December 18, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks as always for your articulate thoughtfulness. I have an angle you might add into the swirl of your thoughts as they continue to coalesce: that humility might play a key role in finding our way back to healthy democracy. As Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind (highly recommended!), confirmation bias makes it much harder to see our own side’s flaws than the other side’s flaws. Trump voters may be wrong about many things, but they can also see some of our weaknesses more clearly than we can.

    Like you, I reject that Trump voters are simply stupid, insane, bigoted, or in the thralls of a mind-numbing version of Christianity. Not only is this a self-defeating view as you said, but it’s also not my experience of humanity, and it feels like a spiritually bankrupt way of looking at half our fellow Americans. The vast majority of conservatives I know are good-hearted and intelligent people who have a very different worldview from mine. I think many of them have been misled, but I still also think it’s our civic and spiritual responsibility to get to know them–as Gene Knudson Hoffman said, “An enemy is one whose story we haven’t heard.”

    Books and articles can be helpful (I’ve read many!), but there’s no substitute for talking directly with Trump voters and listening for the kernels of truth in what they’re saying. For example, my Trump-supporting cousin has offered a cogent critique of the anti-racism movement and made some points I actually agree with–and points that many on the left are fearful of making.

    I highly recommend groups like Braver Angels (, where Americans can encounter each other in a respectful setting and gain new insight on each other’s way of thinking.

    And finally, as a side note, this recent David Brooks column is relevant to your post here: He cites rural poverty as a major influence on conservatives’ rejection of “reality-definers,” and suggests rural revitalization and trust-building as the main things we need to counter disinformation.

  • Anonymous  On December 19, 2020 at 9:01 am

    Great reading this morning Doug Muder. Thank you!

  • M  On December 20, 2020 at 1:57 pm


  • frankackerman0617  On December 23, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    Doug, thanks for trying to elucidate some of the fundamental forces that are threatening our democratic society. I agree with many of your thoughts, but I nonetheless think it is worthwhile to consider the concept of “reality” more carefully. This concept is usually treated as self-evident. In actuality it is a lot more complicated.

    For all its stupendous complexity and wonderfulness, the human intelligent/emotion system is fundamentally no different than the intelligent system of an autonomous vehicle. What we humans consider reality is, in the final analysis, just neuronic connections/patterns in electrical/chemical circuits. Reality for an autonomous vehicle is, in the final analysis, just patterns of electric charges in integrated circuits. In both cases these systems are activated with initial patterns, and then continually modified and enhanced by incoming signals, and from feedback from the actions taken in response to these signals. In both cases the incoming signals can originate either from what’s-out-there or from other humans or other vehicles. Based on the current state of its patterns and in conjunction with incoming signals, an autonomous vehicle takes certain actions. Similarly, for a human, except that its actions are usually influenced by, and accompanied by the release of chemicals that are experienced as emotions.

    Besides having an intelligent/emotion system that is many orders of magnitude more complex than that of an autonomous vehicle, humans receive most of their pattern building inputs from the intelligent/emotion systems of other humans rather than from what’s-out-there. Many, if not most, human actions are taken in response to patterns constructed from inputs from other humans.

    An individual human has very little control over her/his mental/emotional patterns that determine how she/he reacts to any incoming signal. Many patterns, as well as the capability to process patterns are determined by the vagaries evolution has built into human conception and development. Most other patterns are largely determined by life experiences.

    Considered in isolation the patterns and associated responses of any individual human are just as valid as the responses of any other human, although the patterns of some individuals may facilitate beneficial interaction with what’s-out-there, while others my be disastrous. This is the fundamental meaning of “all men are created equal.” The first law of democracy flows from this fundamental truth, namely that the thoughts/emotions of every citizen are, on initial presentation, equally valid. And therefore, the opinions/emotions of every citizen must be respected. Every instance in which this law is transgressed weakens the social fabric of a democracy.

    After birth, in every human the mental/emotional patterns that constitutes that person’s reality are determined by incoming signals, and from the feedback from what’s-out-there that arises in response to action. In order to survive, human action must be compatible with the underlying imperatives of what’s-out-there. When human actions are not compatible, injury and death may result.

    As humanoids developed into homo sapiens, the process by which human mental models of what’s-out-there became more and more complex. Today these models are developed almost solely from the sounds, words, and images received from other humans, not from direct interactions with what’s-out-there. This is true even for those few humans that, using techniques hard-won over centuries of civilization, attempt to determine what’s-out-there, and to hypothesize on what appropriate responses might be. As a result, all human models of what’s-out-there are social, rather than individual, constructs. Various aggregations of these models gives rise to different social factions about what’s-out-there, and what actions to take to realized desired goals, which likewise vary from faction to faction.

    For humans, an opposed to autonomous vehicles, both the construction of models and the determination of appropriate action is by-and-large determined not by reason, but by emotion, which not only distorts incoming information, but can result in inappropriate action.

    The second fundamental law of a democracy is that the models of-what’s-out-there of all significant factions must be considered, and rational discourse used to determine the next group action. The emotions associated with any model must be acknowledged, but in order to arrive at beneficial actions, this discourse needs to be as free from emotions as possible.

    The present existential problem in our democracy is that we now have significant factions that are enthralled by patterns that are divorced from what’s-out-there, and are created only by emotions. Yet in order to preserve our democracy these factions must be part of our political discourse. The folly of taking action based solely on emotion must be thwarted or, disaster will eventually result.

    So, Doug, taking a more abstract and philosophical road, I come to the same place: How can the factions that are advocating action (or non-action) based solely on emotions be brought into empathetic but rational discourse to consider signals from what’s-out-there?

    Here’s a thought: I’m not certain, but I think it was in a Clinton administration when a national discussion on reducing the deficit was undertaken. Grass-roots discussion groups were held all around the country and citizens of all persuasions discussed their views. If we are serious about saving our democracy, we could do something similar. It could be called “The National Conversation Project” with a directorate housed in a US agency, and part-time people throughout the country hired to facilitate and report on local discussions. All discussion groups would have participants from different factions with scads of preparation made to facilitate polite, empathic, and rational discourse.

    • songerk  On December 23, 2020 at 2:07 pm

      Frank, I appreciate this thoughtful comment, and your suggestion for a national conversation project makes me wonder: Are you familiar with Braver Angels or Living Room Conversations? These and other groups are trying to do something very similar to what you’re suggesting, bringing people together for respectful conversation across differences. Great minds think alike! 🙂 I’ve got a few more groups listed here, under “Dialogue Groups Where You Can Practice and Learn:” Just thought you might be interested…

      • frankackerman0617  On December 25, 2020 at 5:52 pm

        Thanks Katie. Appreciate the links. Checked your web site. Right On!

  • Sumana Harihareswara  On December 30, 2020 at 9:46 am

    I think you may be interested in this danah boyd piece about media literacy and who gets to decide what is true:

  • ramseyman  On January 4, 2021 at 7:25 am

    It may be worth considering that there is a fundamental difference between right wing leaders and right wing followers. That the enemy elite is defined as the white tower academics and not the yacht riding rich is easy enough to Occam out when we ask who is bankrolling and running the propaganda mills. These are mostly educated people and didn’t get where they are by being slow on the uptake. Can many of the people pulling the strings truly believe the reality bending distortions that they get their minions to repeat endlessly every day? Do the publishers of the WSJ truly believe that Jill Biden is bad for claiming to be a doctor? The upshot of what I’m saying is that it would go a long way to restoring some hope of recovery if we could unmask the corporate rich for who they are and what they are doing. We all can have common cause in uniting against being manipulated by the real elite, and it’s going to have to happen if we’re to improve anything.


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