Imagine All the People

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.

9 thoughts on “Imagine All the People

  1. I always appreciate your insights and think there is a lot of truth here. One big issue I have with this is the way too many of us repeat the false narrative that Hillary Clinton lost the election. She lost the Electoral College but won the popular vote as you know. If we had an actual democracy committed to the popular vote, she would be president today. this distinction is important. It is at the core of why it’s important to lift up structure and process – in addition to candidate’s strategy and personality. Yes, what you said about Clinton’s campaign was true. It’s *all of the above*. Obscuring how systems play out in this process – i.e., the limits/intentional design of our educational system, news media, the academy/punditocracy, and other structures of socialization and acculturation, etc., in thwarting the development of a thoughtful, analytical, compassionate electorate – actually contributes to the kind of reductionism I think you are cautioning against.

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    • Thanks for those kind comments. I certainly agree with what you say from your fifth sentence on to the end. I very much like the way you put that–that structures of socialization and acculturation thwart political development, and yes, explain the phenomenon I’m describing in this post. In fact, I might steal that at some point.

      That said, I still think Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election. Yes, she won the popular vote, but given how our system works, it’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that determines victory in the election. Given that, we can’t know whether Trump would have adjusted his strategy if things had been different–i.e., if the popular vote determined victory. If things had been different, he might still have won.

      I haven’t studied the case for and against the Electoral College well enough to have a strong opinion on it. The case for the College says that it exists to prevent regional or demographic domination; the case against says that it’s undemocratic, convoluted, and defies common sense. I see the truth in both positions without knowing which position is better, all things considered.

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  2. Thank you. I look forward to hearing what you think once you’ve had more time to reflect on whether the Electoral College advances or suppresses democracy. As you may have guessed, to my mind the institution was devised to advance so called states rights – an essentially white supremacist doctrine. Thank you again for your analysis and your reply. All the best!

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    • … to my mind the institution was devised to advance so called states rights – an essentially white supremacist doctrine…

      Is it? If so, why do you think so?

      Claims of “states rights” have of course been used, in more than one famous instance, to try to practically or ideologically bolster white supremacist politics. But essentially seems to suggest a stronger claim. Could you say a bit more about why you say it is essentially white supremacist as a doctrine?

      (E.g., sometimes people use the term to mean [1] “practically,” “for all intents and purposes”, i.e. in the real world factual context, states rights appeals always really amount to white supremacist ploys, despite any pleas to the contrary; philosophers often use the term to mean [2] “necessarily,” “without any logically possible or conceivable exception, even hypothetically,” i.e., any doctrine of states rights necessarily also therefore counts as white supremacist. Do you mean to say either of these things, or am I reading too much into the word?)

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      • Without putting words in highergroundstrategies’s mouth, maybe one meaning of “essentially” is “persistently enough to be a recurring problem that we’re better off doing without.” This post below isn’t about states rights but directly about the Electoral College, and I think that’s what Robin is getting at:

        https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/02/21/the-tyranny-of-the-minority-from-iowa-caucus-to-electoral-college/

        On that interpretation, I’d grant that both states rights and the Electoral College present problems that are persistent enough to be recurring. The question is whether, all things considered, those problems are worth putting up with for whatever advantages they confer. Still agnostic there.

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        • Sure, I’m familiar with the concern that that equal representation of states in the Senate (and, as a result, also a fixed share of the electors allotted to each state in the Electoral College) produce, or can produce, anti-majoritarian results, in that, compared to the majority vote of the population as a whole, it overweights small-population states and underweights large-population states. The weighting is strongly skewed, in a somewhat different but also non-majoritarian direction, by another, different feature — that in almost all states, Electoral College votes are allocated on an all-or-nothing basis to the first-past-the-post winner in that state (meaning that a one-vote majority in a given state counts for exactly as much in the final total as a huge supermajority vote, holding the size of the states equal). Those anti-majoritarian skews may be a problem — certainly, the two presidents in my adult lifetime who were elected because of its effects have been really awful presidents.

          But it seems like the claim was intended to be somewhat stronger than the claim that it produces bad political outcomes in the present epoch — if we’re talking about a historical claim about the intentions behind creating the Electoral College back around 1787, say, then that’s a more complicated historical question.(*) If we’re talking a philosophical claim about the nature of “states rights” doctrines as such, then that’s another question again. (I think they’re philosophically indefensible of course, but I think pretty much all doctrines of political sovereignty are philosophically indefensible, so, no surprise there….)

          To be clear, I think the Electoral College is a pretty dumb thing to have, that the reasons behind it aren’t especially good reasons, etc., that the benefits publicly claimed for at the time it was conceived were mostly post-hoc rationalizations for a kludgy compromise that mostly pleased nobody, and in any case are largely irrelevant today; and that the benefits publicly claimed for it now are really kind of poorly targeted at best (twiddling voting rules to nudge in a small extra margin for small or rural states is sort of a weird way to do things; the way that party caucuses and partisan elections now work has almost obliterated any independent influence whatever of state delegations, etc. etc.). But independently of whether or not the Electoral College (for example) ought to still be around, I’d like to understand why it was there, what the likely or desirable alternatives are, etc., and to hear a bit more about the specifics of @highergroundstrategies ‘s objection, specifically with respect to racial dynamics — it’s clear enough how the Electoral College produces anti-majoritarian outcomes; but the historical or philosophical claim about white supremacy is one that I’d want to hear more in detail about the contours of and the argument for.

          (* And one where I’d be pretty hesitant about projecting the debates and the rival sides and coalitional line-ups of contemporary politics very far back into the historical past. The debate between “large state” and “small state” interests at the Convention doesn’t seem to me like it lines up very well, either in terms of regions or in terms of political ideologies or in terms of racial dynamics, with the debates about those questions during the sectional crises of 1850-1860, or during the civil rights struggle and “massive resistance” at the end of the Jim Crow era, or in the present phase of “Red State”-“Blue State” partisan politics.)

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    • Thanks, @highergroundstrategies. The doctrine of states rights has certainly been used to promote white supremacy in the past, but it has more benign uses. Nowadays it’s also being used to protect immigrant rights against the encroachments of federal agencies, as in New Jersey’s Immigrant Trust Directive, and similar sorts of legal action at the state level:

      https://www.nj.gov/oag/trust/

      Arguably it’s now the federal government’s imposition of power on the states that’s an expression of white supremacy and xenophobia, as in the Trump Administration’s suit against “sanctuary states.”

      And sad to say, the feds seem to have won for now. But any challenge to them will have to invoke states rights in the name of immigrant justice.

      To state the obvious: the value of states rights varies by state. New Jersey’s interpretation of the doctrine is going to be different from, say, Alabama’s. So “states rights” is hardly a panacea.The danger of co-optation by white supremacists and others is there.

      My ambivalence about the Electoral College is a bit like my ambivalence about states rights. Both have been used to promote white supremacy, but both can serve to blunt it, as well. As I say, I’m not sure how to resolve that, precisely because in some contexts I regard states rights as benign and necessary. Without states rights and local autonomy, a federal government like Trump’s would have the authority to micromanage the workings of every police department and sheriff’s office in the country. The Nazis had that authority on Day 1 of the Third Reich. Once they had it, the Final Solution was just a matter of time. I hate to put it this way, but the same logic applies here.

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      • Arguably it’s now the federal government’s imposition of power on the states that’s an expression of white supremacy and xenophobia

        Well, it’s not just now, of course. In the mid-1850s, one of the hottest conflicts over Federal authority and states’ rights was the controversy over Federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the efforts by New England and Midwestern states to enact Personal Liberty Laws to encumber or halt U.S. enforcement.

        There are also lots of cases where the political or legal dynamics involve just don’t line up in a very straightforward or predictable way with the factional or ideological lines that you might expect, if you are just looking at it in terms of political coalitions: in Ashcroft/Gonzales v. Raich, for instance, you had the Ninth Circuit declaring in favor of states’ rights to protect medical marijuana growers from federal prosecution, based on legal arguments drawn largely from conservative Commerce Clause and Tenth Amendment jurisprudence, and the Supreme Court then overturning them in favor of the Attorney General of the United States’ insistence on the Supremacy Clause. (But with dissents in favor of the hippies by Justices O’Connor, Rehnquist and Thomas.) Etc.

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  3. Thank you, Robin. I totally hear that. I want to make the distinction between the doctrine of states rights and preemption. Yes, there are states trying to use their powers for good, including the protection of human rights, immigrant rights, etc., but it is more often cities working to extend those protections in the face of state preemption and other blocks. As you know, there were sanctuary cities way before sanctuary states though state action is certainly welcome. Preemption can also work for good as it did in the case of civil rights. The basic rule is that you want cities or states to be held to a standard “floor” with regard to how low to set the bar (i.e., at the very least not enacting policies that abuse human rights and dignity) but be unfettered with regard to any “ceiling” how high to set the bar (i.e., enacting policies that advance the highest standards of protections, support, etc., with space to evolve as we learn). One of the best articulations of the root issues with states rights is from legal scholar Peggy Cooper Davis. You can find an article by her here: https://scholarworks.law.ubalt.edu/all_fac/1056/

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