Although it is a common cliché that a new sitting president will “unite” us, the idea of the “American people” falling in line behind a new administration is a fantasy. Presidential approval ratings have always been polarized along party lines—although the partisan gap has widened over the decades. Yet such rhetoric remains an integral part of the post-election political theater, helpful for relieving some of the partisan pressure built up over a frequently nasty campaign season.
The gaping chasm between Biden supporters and Trump voters, however, is not going to be narrowed by rhetorical olive branches. The pre-election belief that ousting Trump would restore political normalcy is rooted in the mistaken idea that his 2016 success was an aberration, a freak anomaly that would be soon forgotten after a more respectable statesman or woman took over the Oval Office. That story is nothing more than a flight of fancy, one that ignores the underlying causes for rampant polarization, “post-truth,” Trumpism, or however one diagnoses our political malaise. The problem is that Americans worship entirely different notions of Truth.
Many of my fellow leftist friends and colleagues desperately want to believe that Trumpism is little more than the last gasps of a dying racist culture. It is a convenient move, which allows them to think of Trump voters as the political equivalent of anti-vaxxers. Once diagnosed as hopelessly deluded and on the wrong side of history, there is no longer any need to understand Trump voters. They only need to be defeated.
Washington Monthly contributor David Atkins openly wondered how we could “deprogram” the 75 million or so people who voted for Trump, dismissing their electoral choice as due to belonging to “a conspiracy theory fueled belligerent death cult against reality & basic decency.” What a way to talk about an almost full quarter of the population! Only the most dyspeptic will admit to daydreaming about ideological reeducation drives, at least publicly. Optimists, on the other hand, allow themselves to believe that “truth and rationality” will inevitably win out, that the wave of popular support for politicians like Trump will naturally subside, ebbing away like the tide.
The desire to equate of Trumpism with white supremacy is understandable, even if it is probably political escapism. Trump’s company faced a 1973 federal lawsuit for racial discriminating against black tenants, and he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1989 to call for the death of five black and Latino youth falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white jogger. His 2016 campaign rhetoric included insinuating that Mexican immigrants mostly brought drugs and crime to the United States, and promised tough-on-crime legislation that disproportionately burdens minority neighborhoods.
The “dying racist America” thesis is not merely propped up by a sober accounting of Trump’s panoply of racial misdeeds but by attacking the next plausible explanation: working class discontent. Adam Serwer’s review of the 2016 election statistics raises serious challenges to that argument. Clinton won a greater proportion of voters making less than $50,000. And neither did the opioid epidemic ripping through white rural America seem to tip the election toward Trump. White working-class citizens whose loved ones were coping with mental health problems, financial troubles, and substance abuse expressed less support for Trump, not more.
But then again Biden was most successful in the counties where the bulk of America’s economic activity occur. The 477 counties accounting for 70 percent of the US economy went to the former vice-president, while a greater proportion of counties that have faced weak job, population, and economic growth went to Trump. To top it off, Trump lost white votes in 2020 and made significant, albeit single-digit, gains among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. Although Trump’s base has traditionally been with white voters who railed against immigration and the perceived feminization of society, neither the “economically disenfranchised working class” nor the “white supremacy” theses seem to really explain the former president’s appeal.
Science vs. Common Sense
Political movements are rarely understood by focusing on members’ deficiencies. An especially misleading starting point is wherever those movements’ opponents think the deficits are. Political allies are more strongly bonded by their shared strengths than their flaws—however obvious and fatal the latter may be.
Data on the employment backgrounds of political donations are insightful here. The Democrats are increasingly of not just the party of the professional class, but the college-educated in general. Scientists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and accountants dominated donations to Biden, whereas Trump’s support came from business owners, police officers, truckers, construction workers, pilots, stay-at-home mothers, and farmers. This split doesn’t map well onto to income-based conceptions of “working class.” Business owners and pilots often make a good living for their families, while well-educated social workers do not. Rather, the difference lies in which kind of knowledge defines their competency.
Today’s political divisions are only indirectly class and racially based, the more fundament divide is between formally schooled expertise and experience-based judgment. Office workers, service employees, and elite knowledge-sector analysts are on one side, whereas blue-collar manual laborers and business owners are on the other. Despite our culture’s tendency to equate intelligence with a talent for mathematical abstraction or the patience (or pretension) to read dense books by French authors, writers like Mike Rose and Matthew Crawford remind us of the discerning judgements necessary for competence in physical work. Blue collar workers and business owners don’t explicitly analyze symbols but have precisely tuned gut feelings that help them do their jobs well.
Much of America’s political malaise is due to the polarized veneration of these competing styles of knowledge. The idolization of science translates into support for technocracy, or rule by experts. The same worship but for common sense drives an attraction to populism. It is this division above all others that increasingly separates Democrats and Republicans. In his victory speech, Biden explicitly painted himself as a defender of science, promising to put properly credentialed experts in charge of pandemic planning.
In contrast, Trump and his allies have taken great lengths to champion how (some) lay people (fail to) understand public problems. Recall how Newt Gingrich dismissed FBI crime statistics as immaterial in the run-up to the 2016 election, stating that “the average American…does not think that crime is down.” He followed up with, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel.” Likewise, faced with polls and election numbers showing a Biden victory, Trump voters saw the occurrence of voter fraud as “common sense.” They reason that since Democratic politicians and media outlets despise Trump so much, why wouldn’t they collude with poll workers to spoil the election? As Democrats have portrayed themselves as defending “the facts,” the right has doubled down on gut feeling.
This same dynamic increasingly defines America’s racial politics as well. Armed with concepts and theories from academics such as Robin D’Angelo, people don’t end up having rich, empathy-evoking conversations about their experiences of race in America. Rather, the more militant members of the “woke” left play armchair psychologist, focusing on diagnosing fellow citizens’ racist personality dysfunctions and prescribing the appropriate therapeutic interventions. They demand that others learn to understand their lives through the vocabulary of critical race scholars, whose conclusions are presented as indisputable.
White people who struggle with some critical race theorists’ stark view that one is either racist or actively anti-racist are labeled as suffering from “white fragility,” an irrational and emotional response to having one’s own undeniable racism exposed. Regardless of whether one thinks this judgement is apt or not, it is difficult to deny that the prognosis comes off as arrogant and dismissive. How else would we expect participants to respond when hearing that some of their cherished ideas about valuing hard work, individualism, or the nuclear family is just part of an inherently racist “white culture”? But empathic understanding is often in short supply when antiracists find themselves in a rare teachable moment. As a New York City Education Councilwoman put it to her colleague in a now viral video, “Read a book. Read Ibram Kendi….It is not my job to educate you.”
Many conservative Americans have reacted to the inroads that critical race theory has made into the workplace and popular discourse by retreating to a similarly incurious form of “common sense.” Ideas from critical race theory become labeled as political correctness run amok, or even “cult indoctrination.” All this is somehow imposed on the rest of the nation by left-wing academic activists whose far-reaching powers somehow only disappear when it comes to concretely influencing policymaking or to getting their 18-year-old students to actually read for class.
Regardless of where one’s sympathies lie in this debate, it seems clear that productive conversations across party lines about the extent of America’s racial problems and what could be done about them are simply not happening.
The real tragedy of today’s political moment is that the elevation of “truth” over politics has locked us into a vicious cycle. Technocracy breeds popular distrust in experts. And the specter of populism spurs the professional class to further wrap themselves in the mantle of “the facts.” And no one budges on anything. Consider ongoing protests of pandemic protection measures. Resistance to state government’s social distancing and stay-at-home requirements has not been a rejection of science so much as the rejection of the inflexibility, strictness, and occasional arbitrariness of executive orders.
Yet many governors have reacted to the pandemic situation as if politics is no longer necessary, as if leaving any room for negotiation were dangerous. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom stated that “health outcomes and science – not politics” would guide reopening plans. And Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer concurred, contending that her decision was a “data-driven approach based on facts, based on science, based on recommendations from experts.”
And much of the media repeats ad nauseum the facts of the matter. It is as if journalists believe that if they present just the right infographic on ICU beds or presentation of the size of one’s social “bubble”—along with a healthy dollop of social shaming—less risk averse Americans will immediately change their holiday plans and social lives to sequester at home. When that fails to happen, the talking points shift to the irrationality and immorality of a public that fails to respect facts.
The problem with the mantra “please just listen to the science!” is that science literacy doesn’t determine whether citizens listen or not. What matters is the perceived trustworthiness of experts and public officials. Expert guidance only gets legitimated through a kind of common sense. Citizens go “with their guts” on whether the elected officials and their science-based advice seems sensible and trustworthy.
One of the best ways to inadvertently sow distrust in experts is to portray them as an unquestionable authority. Anywhere where “post-truth” seems to be on the upswing—in the response to the pandemic or for childhood vaccinations—the determinations of experts are handed down as if divinely decreed, or as if citizens’ reservations need to be only “managed” or countered. The stakes are judged to be so high that ordinary people are deemed unworthy of being consulted regarding how exactly expert recommendations should be implemented. Health researchers and doctors don’t think to ask the vaccine hesitant how they might be made to feel more comfortable with the vaccination process; state governors never bothered to ask people how pandemic protections might be implemented in ways that are less disruptive to their lives.
The other way is for experts to get things wrong. When “the facts” are initially presented as unassailable, later corrections aren’t taken as the routine self-corrections of the scientific process but rather as evidence that the science has been tainted by politics. Early in the pandemic, health experts told the public that masks were ineffective at preventing a COVID-19 infection, but then turned around and recommended that they be mandatory in many states’ pandemic guidelines.
The minor inconveniences of mask wearing and reduced restaurant occupancy have blown up to become perceived as gross violations of freedom in the “common sense” of a substantial portion of Americans not because those citizens deny science but rather because expert opinion was arrogantly applied. Officials failed to be honest and admit that even the scientists were feeling their way through an uncertain situation and that they too make value judgements in light of what they don’t yet understand.
And governmental policies have been inconsistent and sometimes unfair. I can get ticketed in my own state if I walk around a deserted athletic field without a mask. In many states, bars and restaurants are open but outdoor playgrounds remain closed. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that these rules probably do not match the on-the-ground risks. But when leaders and experts overplay their hand, some portion of citizens just start taking expert guidance less seriously. Precious political capital is wasted to enforce compliance in ways that may be pure hygiene theater. Neither has it helped that governors such as Andrew Cuomo originally seemed content to waste vaccines, lest they go to someone who has been calculated by state bureaucrats to be less deserving.
Beyond Political Road Rage
Amidst the trench warfare between technocrats lobbying fact-laced truth bombs and populists laying “common sense” landmines, Americans have largely forgotten how to do politics. The underlying reasoning is understandable. If our collective problems are recast as completely solvable by straightforwardly applying science or something called common sense, what reason is there to debate, negotiate, or listen? Doing so would needlessly give ground to ignorant rubes and brainwashed ideologues.
Americans need not like the viewpoints of their compatriots, but they ought to at least try to understand them. But far too many people appear to put their faith in Truth with a capital T. If only their opponents could be led to see the light and recognize “the facts” or popular “common sense” that they would they quit arguing and toe the line. If only politics were so simple.
It is easy to imagine things getting much worse. A less dysfunctional public sphere feels like a utopian daydream. A good first step would be for Democrats to stop wrapping themselves in the mantle of science and learn to listen better to Americans who don’t have a college degree. Everywhere that populism has developed, it has been in reaction to the popular perception that the political establishment is increasingly elitist and distant. Is it any surprise that 64% of Americans now disagree with the idea that politicians “care what people like me think”? Appearing to hand important political decisions over to scientists in distant universities and governmental agencies is literally the worst thing that elected officials could do right now.
For their part, conservatives, libertarians, and others should lay off the polarizing rhetoric about universities and experts. Rather than attack expertise itself, it is far better to focus instead on efforts to intellectually diversify higher education or turn political conversations back toward the moral (rather than factual) divides that define them. The claim that institutions of higher education are “under attack” by an “insidious” woke ideology is needlessly melodramatic. It reinforces the image of the world as hopeless divided between incommensurable worldviews and further fuels polarization between credentialed expertise and practical common sense. Worst of all, it portrays wokeness is something to be excised from the body politic rather than faced up to as a legitimate political adversary. Hyperbolic handwringing about traitorous cultural Marxists is as antidemocratic as any of the more draconian proposals coming from the left.
Taking one’s political adversaries seriously means making a serious effort to persuade fence sitters—and not just through shaming. When a majority of Americans balked at the “Defund the Police” slogan over the summer, defenders doubled down on the phrase. The problem wasn’t with their poor choice of rhetoric, they seemed to imply, but that the public was misinformed about what the phrase really meant. I can’t think of a more potent example of willful political unawareness.
Whether it is woke-ism or Trumpism, fanatical political movements tell us that something is seriously amiss in our body politic, that an area of public discontent is in a need of serious attention. We must be willing to take those discontents seriously. Focusing on apparent deficits in factual understanding or commonsense reasoning prevents us from better addressing the underlying causes of popular frustration.
George Carlin once mused, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” American political discourse is little different, having become the rhetorical equivalent of road rage. Citizens need more productive ways to talk about their collective problems. Unless people are willing to admit that people can hold a different political viewpoint without being either an idiot of a maniac, there is little hope for American democracy. Power will just continue to vacillate between aloof technocrats and populist buffoons.
After news broke of the Las Vegas shooting, which claimed some 59 lives, professional and lay observers did not hesitate in trotting out the same rhetoric that Americans have heard time and time again. Those horrified by the events demanded that something be done; indeed, the frequency and scale of these events should be horrifying. Conservatives, in response, emphasized evidence for what they see as the futility of gun control legislation. Yet it is not so much gun control itself that seems futile but rather our collective efforts to accomplish almost any policy change. The Onion satirized America's firearm predicament with the same headline used after numerous other shootings: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Why is it that we Americans seem so helpless to effect change with regard to mass shootings? What explains our inability to collectively act to combat these events?
Political change is, almost invariably, slow and incremental. Although the American political system is, by design, uniquely conservative and biased toward maintaining the status quo, that is not the only reason why rapid change rarely occurs. Democratic politics is often characterized as being composed by a variety of partisan political groups, all vying with one another to get their preferred outcome on any given policy area: that is, as pluralistic. When these different partisan groups are relatively equal and numerous, change is likely to be incremental because of substantial disagreements between these groups and the fact that each only has a partial hold on power. Relative equality among them means that any policy must be a product of compromise and concession—consensus is rarely possible. Advocates of environmental protection, for instance, could not expect to convince governments to immediately dismantle of coal-fired power plants, though they might be able to get taxes, fines, or subsidies adjusted to discourage them; the opposition of industry would prevent radical change. Ideally, the disagreements and mutual adjustments between partisans would lead to a more intelligent outcome than if, say, a benevolent dictator unilaterally decided.
While incremental policy change would be expected even in an ideal world of relatively equal partisan groups, things can move even slower when one or more partisan groups are disproportionately powerful. This helps explain why gun control policy—and, indeed, environmental protections, and a whole host of other potentially promising changes—more often stagnates than advances. Businesses occupy a relatively privileged position compared to other groups. While the CEO of Exxon can expect the president’s ear whenever a new energy bill is being passed, average citizens—and even heads of large environmental groups—rarely get the same treatment. In short, when business talks, governments listen. Unsurprisingly the voice of the NRA, which is in essence a lobby group for the firearm industry, sounds much louder to politicians than anyone else’s—something that is clear from the insensitivity of congressional activity to widespread support for strengthening gun control policy.
But there is more to it that just that. I am not the first person to point out that the strength of the gun lobby stymies change. Being overly focused the disproportionate power wielded by some in the gun violence debate, we miss the more subtle ways in which democratic political pluralism is itself in decline.
Another contributing factor to the slowness of gun policy change is the way Americans talk about issues like gun violence. Most news stories, op-eds, and tweets are laced with references to studies and a plethora of national and international statistics. Those arguing about what should be done about gun violence act as if the main barrier to change has been that not enough people have been informed of the right facts. What is worse is that most participants seem already totally convinced of the rightness of their own version or interpretation of those facts: e.g., employing post-Port Arthur Australian policy in the US will reduce deaths or restrictive gun laws will lead to rises in urban homicides. Similar to two warring nations both believing that they have God uniquely on their side, both sides of the gun control debate lay claim to being on the right side of the facts, if not rationality writ large.
The problem with such framings (besides the fact that no one actually knows what the outcome would be until a policy is tried out) is that anyone who disagrees must be ignorant, an idiot, or both. That is, exclusively fact-based rhetoric—the scientizing of politics—denies pluralism. Any disagreement is painted as illegitimate, if not heretical. Such as view leads to a fanatical form of politics: There is the side with “the facts” and the side that only needs informed or defeated, not listened to. If “the facts” have already pre-determined the outcome of policy change, then there is no rational reason for compromise or concession, one is simply harming one’s own position (and entertaining nonsense).
If gun control policy is to proceed more pluralistically, then it would seem that rhetorical appeals to the facts would need dispensed with—or at least modified. Given that the uncompromising fanaticism of some of those involved seems rooted in an unwavering certainty regarding the relevant facts, emphasizing uncertainty would likely be a promising avenue. In fact, psychological studies find that asking people to face the complexity of public issues and recognize the limits of their own knowledge leads to less fanatical political positions.
Proceeding with a conscious acknowledgement of uncertainty would have the additional benefit of encouraging smarter policy. Guided by an overinflated trust that a few limited studies can predict outcomes in exceedingly complex and unpredictable social systems, policy makers tend to institute rule changes or laws with no explicit role for learning. Despite that even scientific theories are only tentatively true, ready to be turned over by evermore discerning experimental tests or shift in paradigm, participants in the debate act as if events in Australia or Chicago have established eternal truths about gun control. As a result, seldom is it considered that new policies could be tested gradually, background check and registration requirements that become more stringent over time or regional rollouts, with an explicit emphasis on monitoring for effectiveness and unintended consequences—especially consequences for the already marginalized.
How Americans debate issues like gun control would be improved in still other ways if the narrative of “the facts” were not so dominant in people’s speech. It would allow greater consideration of values, feelings, and experiences. For instance, gun rights advocates are right to note that semiautomatic “assault” weapons are responsible for a minority of gun deaths, but their narrow focus on that statistical fact prevents them from recognizing that it is not their “objective” danger that motivates their opponents but their political riskiness. The assault rifle, due to its use in horrific mass shootings, has come to symbolize American gun violence writ large. For gun control advocates it is the antithesis of conservatives’ iconography of the flag: It represents everything that is rotten about American culture. No doubt reframing the debate in that way would not guarantee more productive deliberation, but it would at least enable political opponents some means of beginning to understand each others' position.
Even if I am at least partly correct in diagnosing what ails American political discourse, there remains the pesky problem of how to treat it. Allusions to “the facts,” attempts to leverage rhetorical appeals to science for political advantage, have come to dominant political discourse over the course of decades—and without anyone consciously intending or dictating it. How to effect movement in the opposite direction? Unfortunately, while some social scientists study these kinds of cultural shifts as they occur throughout history, practically none of them research how beneficial cultural changes could be generated in the present. Hence, perhaps the first change citizens could advocate for would be more publicly responsive and relevant social research. Faced with an increasingly pathological political process and evermore dire consequences from epochal problems, social scientists can no longer afford to be so aloof; they cannot afford to simply observe and analyze society while real harms and injustices continue unabated.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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