Saturday, August 19, 2017

Trump, White Anger and the Paranoid Political Tradition

Just because you’re paranoid does not mean they’re not out to get you.

Maybe it's true:  immigration does exert a downward pressure on wages.  But maybe it's NOT TRUE.  Plenty of economists find that the incremental demand for goods and services created by immigrants -- and therefore economic growth -- more than offset the competition for wages.  These economists base their argument in evidence, not reason.  In fact, there is no correlation between cities with larger immigrant populations and lower wages.  And there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

But it's certainly true that the argument is an authentic expression of fear and anger of working class whites.  They BELIEVE that immigrants are taking their jobs for lower pay, thereby driving wages down.  And they BELIEVE that the system is rigged against them because to them it's self-evident:  low wages are good for employers, good for business, good for the establishment.  And whether they're true or not, these beliefs have an effect on our politics, our government and our history.

This essay by Lynn Vavreck in the New York Times is a classic summary of this dilemma and it's impact not only on electoral politics and public policy but also how we think of ourselves.
Some Trump critics find his focus on whites as a group outrageous or counterproductive. But survey data suggest that many white Americans do feel threatened, and that they think there are policies that discriminate against them and should be changed.
Apparently, groups that feel threatened create a real political force to be reckoned with, wether or not their feelings are based on evidence.  It's also true that these beliefs can be influenced by charismatic leaders.  Vavreck concludes:
Mr. Trump’s continued efforts to remind white Americans of their group status may increase the number of white people who think of themselves through a racial lens. It is one of the ways that his campaign and presidency may reshape public opinion and politics.  He is capitalizing both on an existing sense of threat among white voters and the opportunity to shape the way whites — because of their group membership — think of themselves.
My cousin, Gavino, brought this essay to my attention and, in the process, also reminded me of this brilliant and classic essay by Richard Hofstadter on the "Paranoid Style in American Politics."  It's very relevant and I'd highly recommend reading it.  The tradition of majority and privileged populations feeling like a persecuted minority has been with us a long time.

Hofstadter is great.  I have always loved his writing and point of view.  He’s fair, open, astoundingly clear, and obsessed with HISTORICAL evidence.  He is, after all, a historian.  He makes a case that the cultural “style” is real, true and deeply rooted in the American tradition.  It's existence is a historical fact.  And whether their deeply held beliefs of persecution are real or not, they have been a force in electoral politics, policy and American history.

Hofstadter is critical of the "paranoid style", however.  What does he make of the subjective experiences of those “suffering” the “paranoid" tradition, as if they were a beleaguered and persecuted minority.  Are they?  Should we believe them?

I think he’s right on when he writes:
“Nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated than with the truth or falsity of their content.”
Brilliant.  Which means that the answer to my question — should we believe them — is that IT DEPENDS.  Sometimes yes.  Sometimes no.  Let’s consider their claims practically, on a case-by-case basis, considering the evidence, not theoretically.  Let us NOT be swayed by the style of the argument, the underlying philosophy of paranoia.

Although he’s open and fair, in my opinion, willing to consider the veracity of their arguments on a case by case basis, he is no fan of the “paranoid style.”  And in general, he’s taken examples of the style from dangerous populist movements based on serious delusions (many of them racist) and depending on uncritical or ignorant followers.  He wrote, 
"Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. […]  I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent."
Hofstadter concludes by asking the reader to empathize with the paranoid:  
"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

I am a huge fan of this essay.  

Just because the white working class feels persecuted doesn't mean that they are.  On the other hand, just because we don't share their beliefs in their disadvantaged status, we should respect them as a viable political force.  And furthermore, because of the tradition of the "paranoid style" and the very real force it continues to exert on our politics, we ought to fear charismatic leaders who take advantages of these tendencies and use them for their own political or egotistical ends.

1 comment:

Rich T said...

I come from a decidedly white working class background. If you were to poll white working class people I am sure they would claim to believe in self-reliance, hard work, initiative, etc, etc. How ironic that what typifies their politics today is victimhood - the system is stacked against them. Well, in fact it is - but when it comes time to choose how to respond, they always seem to blame the less fortunate groups in society (immigrants, minorities) for an imagined favored status. Yes, affirmative action is real. If that's the only argument they have to support the claim that immigrants or minorities have some advantage over themselves it's a very weak one. Affirmative action applies only to some jobs, and doesn't come close to offsetting the negative effects of race or immigrant status. Furthermore, they align themselves politically with the party (Republican) that best represents the people who are enjoying *all* the advantages (the truly affluent, the tiny minority that hold the vast majority of wealth). The party they support and the candidate they elected to the presidency have both acted against the white working class time after time - it's a matter of public record, far from any secret. But for the white working class always chooses a convenient enemy - weak, not powerful, others, not themselves. They tend more than anything else to believe in some fantasy that the world would go back to the way it was - lots of manufacturing jobs, stable families, etc - if only the imagined "government policies" would be lifted. They never seem to admit to themselves that things always change, they never stay the same, yesterday's manufacturing jobs are gone for good, and they don't qualify for today's fewer manufacturing jobs because they don't believe they need to change. The sad thing is that they raise their kids on the same delusions, and their kids don't do any better. When it comes to reality their alleged belief in self-reliance is a sham. Most do not undergo the painful process of accepting change and changing in response, by accepting the challenge to learn and change with the demands of the labor market. And by challenging the simplistic belief system of their peers. That's much harder than swallowing a shared fantasy, copping an attitude and becoming entrenched in loss - together, in solidarity.