When Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, there were people out there who were absolutely certain that the explanation was sexism: the American people couldn’t (they insisted) handle the idea of a female president, and voted accordingly. You couldn’t get such people to consider the possibility that maybe Hillary Clinton lost the election because she was a complacent, uninspiring candidate.
When Donald Trump won the same election, there were right-wingers sure that his victory represented the voice of the common, forgotten working man–vox populi if not vox dei incarnate. You couldn’t get such people to consider that maybe he won through the electorate’s participation in the open bigotry and mendacity he so loudly promoted.
Of course, there were those who thought the whole election could be explained as racism ascendant. You couldn’t tell those people that maybe there were other factors to consider–e.g., regulation, taxation, plain old race-neutral class warfare. Put it this way: no one could deny that the Nazis were brought to power through anti-Semitism, but it’s not as though anti-Semitism was literally the only factor involved the elections that brought them to national power. So why think that here?
The truth is that political scientists are still hashing through the 2016 election data. Every claim to knowledge they make comes qualified with a profession or two of ignorance and uncertainty. The “unpalatable” corollary is that few demographic explanations of the results of the 2016 election are obvious. There’s racism and xenophobia at work, yes, but other things as well. The most obvious fact about the data is not that Trump was elected through racism but that there’s no point in insisting on a monocausal expanation for why he was elected. (Yes, I spent Friday afternoon poring through back issues of Electoral Studies. Don’t forget to invite me to your next party!)
When Cory Booker and Kamala Harris dropped out of the 2020 race, there were people who insisted, once again, that racism was the culprit, both candidates being black. Such people were deaf to the suggestion that black or white, some people just aren’t presidential material–Cory and Kamala being painfully conspicuous cases in point. No, came the retort; the reason they lost (or dropped out) was racism–and only a racist would deny it. Hard to respond to that.
More recently, when Bernie Sanders lost out to Joe Biden on Super Tuesday, some insisted darkly that anti-Semitism was the reason. “Those middle Americans,” they muttered, “just refuse to vote for a Jew.” No telling these people that middle-of-the-road moderate centrism is a motivation of its own, with obvious implications in this case. Centrists tend not to vote for leftists. That’s why they’re called “centrists.”
When Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race, some insisted that it was homophobia (which some in turn attributed specifically to black people, whose lack of support for Buttigieg seemed otherwise mysterious to them): America hadn’t come as far as we thought it had on LGBTQ issues, alas. Hard to tell such people that maybe centrist voters favor Biden-like experience over Buttigieg-like inexperience, and Bidenesque national experience over Buttigiegy municipal experience. I guess homophobia is easier to believe in than the predominance of conventional thinking.
Now that Elizabeth Warren has dropped out, there are people who insist with great emotion that she lost because we live in a sexist country that can’t abide the idea of a female president. Maybe–but it could also be that when voters critical of capitalism are facing a candidate like Biden–one obviously unsympathetic to their concerns–they prefer the candidate more consistently critical of capitalism rather than less so, a democratic socialist Bernie over a reformist neo-capitalist Liz. I mean, we live in a world that contains kaons, mesons, quarks and dark matter. Why not democratic socialists?
My own preferred candidate (as you may know) is Tulsi Gabbard. I could sit here and tell you that the reason why her candidacy never got off the ground is that continental Americans hate the dark-complexioned peoples of the Hawaiian islands, and have hated them–especially their women–from time immemorial. But it could also just be that for all her virtues, Tulsi is a problematic candidate who ran a problematic campaign and suffered for it.
You may have noticed that I’ve left Amy Klobuchar out of this, at least so far. And my adding her here is obviously an afterthought. Is that because I’m a misogynist, or simply because I can’t think of anything to say about her? You decide.
Here’s the point of my rubbing these blatantly obvious facts in your face. It’s not to deny the widespread nature of racism, sexism, and homophobia etc. in our society, any more than I’m denying the widespread nature of anti-Semitism in Weimar Germany. My point is that it’s a problem when millions and millions of politically active people lack even the basics of inductive logic–the principles that govern how we generalize about sets of things. Yes, maybe it’s possible to generalize about the motivations of tens of millions of people you’ve never met by taking a quick glance at a few images of them on TV or online, ignoring all the data about them, and arriving at an angry gut feeling that settles the matter. Or maybe not.
Maybe there are just a lot of uncertainties about the world, including uncertainties about the motivations behind electoral decisions. Maybe politics induces us to confront a lot of them in contexts which both appear and are urgent, but for that very reason incentivizes bias and over-generalization. That isn’t to denigrate politics–human beings are, after all, political animals, and I’m hardly a misanthrope–but to suggest that one thing that politics does is to bring us face-to-face with the very real gaps in our own knowledge of other people.
Consider this hypothesis: The more politically engaged you are, the more you have to interact, one way or another, with strangers. When you do, you have a choice to make. You can either assume that you have a lot to learn from the interaction, or very little. In the first case, you’ll be reluctant to generalize until you’re sure you know what you’re talking about. In the second, you’ll be quick to generalize whether or not you know what you’re talking about. If people of the second kind–the zealous, reflexive over-generalizers–outnumber people of the first, the result will in large part be a politics of demographic hyperbole, stereotypes, and over-generalization: a discourse that consists in large part of wild accusations followed by equally wild counter-accusations, indefinitely repeated.
That dynamic will, to be sure, lead to widespread bigotry. But it may also lead to widespread over-generalizations about bigotry. In other words, the dynamic not only leads to a world full of bigots, but a world full of paranoids who find bigots under every bed, whether or not they’re there, and whether or not there’s a bed. The simultaneous operation of bigotry and paranoia-about-bigotry will end up confusing everyone and creating a lot of pointless turmoil–turmoil happily exploited by the fascists who rely on it. Fascism doesn’t just depend on racism, full stop, but on confusion about how to deal with it. Take it from someone who makes a sick hobby of reading them. (Seriously, I’m really great at parties.)
The same thing that makes racism, sexism, and homophobia wrong makes it wrong to dogmatize about other people–to level hand-waving accusations of bigotry against them–when it’s nearly impossible to know what you’re talking about. Every accusation of this kind adds to the stock of fascist subversions of liberal political norms. You don’t have to hate black people, or women, or Jews, or gays to serve fascism. You just have to hate, and you’ve become a thoroughly loyal servant to their cause. Rancor is the fuel that drives the fascist train.
I mean, I could be wrong, but it’s something to consider.