One Nation

The beginning of the 2020 US presidential campaign is a reminder of the divisions within the United States. Understanding those with different views is not only the road to healing those divisions, but also, for either side, the road to winning in the general election sixteen months from now. Most of you and I already have a reasonably good understanding of the “Progressive” viewpoint that is now so influential in the Democratic Party. Therefore, let’s try to dig into the views of those who are enthusiastic Trump supporters as well as those who might reluctantly vote for Donald Trump because they are uncomfortable with the Democratic Party alternative.  

Peggy Noonan, in her most recent op-ed “The 2020 Democrats Lack Hindsight,” emphasizes “identity” issues as important to those who enthusiastically support Donald or might vote for him because of discomfort with the alternative. She quotes a middle-aged Kansan man, who said:

Every day, Americans are told of the endless ways they are falling short. If we don’t show the ‘proper’ level of understanding according to a talking head, then we are surely racist. If we don’t embrace every sanitized PC talking point, then we must be heartless. If we have the audacity to speak our mind, then we are most definitely a bigot. …

We are jabbed like a boxer with no gloves on to defend us. And we are fed up. We are tired of being told we aren’t good enough. … in Donald Trump, voters found a massive sledgehammer that pulverizes the ridiculous notion that Americans aren’t good enough.

The previous week, in “My Sister, My Uncle and Trump,” Peggy quoted her sister and uncle and characterized these two early Donald supporters this way:

They were patriots; they loved America. They weren’t radical; they’d voted for Republicans and Democrats. They had no grudge against any group or class. They knew that on America’s list of allowable bigotries they themselves—middle Americans, Christians who believed in the old constitutional rights—were the only ones you were allowed to look down on. It’s no fun looking down on yourself, so looking down wasn’t their habit.

A good resolution of cultural issues and racial, ethnic and gender disparities could help heal the divisions in America. (Here, I will leave aside the fraught issue of abortion. For my views on abortion, see “Safe, Legal, Rare and Early.”) Let me give my opinion on a way forward.  

First, for racial, ethnic and gender disparities, as in the area of climate change, a crucial rule to make a civil discussion possible is that recognition of a serious problem should not be construed as agreeing that the remedy urged by those highlighting the problem is the right remedy. People need to have confidence that their views about a remedy will be respected enough that they are not giving away the game by acknowledging the reality of a problem. Admitting a problem exists should not be construed as agreeing to be railroaded into a particular remedy.

As Peggy Noonan points out, people hate being called racist or sexist or otherwise being told they are deplorables. It is good to look for alternative explanations for people’s attitudes before jumping to accusing people of invidious racism or sexism. Here I use the phrase “invidious racism or sexism” to mean seriously blameworthy racism or sexism as opposed to the even more troublesome racist and sexist attitudes that are like the air we breathe and hence not particularly blameworthy in an individual. Non-invidious pervasive racism or sexism is one of the most important alternatives to positing invidious racism or sexism.

Second, racism and sexism can often be supported by systemic structures plus routine self-interest and self-aggrandizement. For example, in economics departments, professors have a strong interest in building up their own fields and their own styles of economics. To the extent their numbers tilt male right now, and male economics professors have, on average, different field and style preferences, their desires to build up their own fields and styles of economics will handicap female job candidates, even if they don’t have any prejudice at all against women who happen to be doing the field and style of economics they are looking for.    

Turning to invidious racism and sexism, it is important to realize that some comes from personal grievances that might not have happened in a better society. For example, children often live in fear of being bullied. Two types of bullying and nasty teasing can lead to invidious racism, sexism and other bad attitudes. First, if the bully happens to be of a different race, the hatred of that bully might be overgeneralized into a hatred of a race. Second, bullies often taunt other children by saying they are a member of disfavored group. When I was a boy, bullies often taunted other boys by saying they were a “fag,” which powerfully got across the idea that to be a homosexual was bad. Both of these mechanisms for creating invidious racism, sexism and other bad attitudes can be forestalled by reducing the amount of bullying that children face from one another. (See my post “Against Bullying.”)

Another reduceable source of invidious racism is the centrality to our current society of prizes—such as admission to elite colleges or professional schools or prestigious jobs—that have an excessive amount of surplus. If elite colleges and professional schools each expanded the number of students admitted, it would reduce the stress on those trying to get admitted and reduce the likelihood that that stress would lead to resentment of affirmative action—and might even reduce the sense that affirmative action was needed, because admission wasn’t quite such a big prize.

When particular jobs have a huge amount of surplus for those who get them, it would be helpful for us to reduce the gap in prestige, pay and perks between them and the next job down on the ladder. The top nurses on the totem pole should be at about as high on the ladder as the least of even experienced doctors. The most talented non-tenure-track lecturers should have at least as much prestige as struggling professors. And the most skilled paralegals should be nearly the equal in prestige to mediocre members of the bar.

Eliminating the kinds of gaps beloved of those doing regression discontinuity analyses—in this case between those barely admitted and barely rejected, or between those barely hired and those barely turned away—should reduce any resentment due to affirmative action, but will still leave the kind of racial/ethnic animosities common against Jews and Asian Americans. There is no single solution to all forms of racism or ethnic or religious hatred.

Finally, there are likely to be many interventions that can be made with schoolchildren that can reduce racism, sexism and other bad attitudes. The key thing is to have these programs evaluated in randomized trials. Just because someone believes something will help doesn’t make it so. (For older age groups, some evidence has come in suggesting that sensitivity training of the common types is not very effective.) There is no shortage of ideas to be tested. In “Nationalists vs. Cosmopolitans: Social Scientists Need to Learn from Their Brexit Blunder” I write:

As a Cosmopolitan, what I most want to know from social science is what interventions can help make people more accepting of foreigners. Somewhat controversially, it is now common in the US for elementary school teachers to make efforts to instill pro-environmental attitudes in schoolchildren. Whether or not those efforts make a difference to children’s attitudes, are there interventions or lessons that can make schoolchildren and the adults they grow up to be likely to feel more positive about the foreign-born in their midst? For example, having had a very good experience learning foreign languages on my commute by listening to Pimsleur CDs in my car, I wonder whether dramatically more effective Spanish language instruction for school children following those principles of audio- and recall-based learning with repetition at carefully graded intervals might make a difference in attitudes toward Hispanic culture and toward Hispanics themselves in the US.

Although it is the province of social scientists to test interventions intended to improve attitudes toward the foreign-born, many of the best interventions will be created by writers, artists, script-writers, directors, and others in the humanities. There are also many other marginalized groups in society, but the strength of anti-foreigner attitudes suggests the need for imaginative entertainment and cultural events to help people identify with human beings who were born in other countries.

My bottom line is that when we think of racism and sexism and other bad attitudes, we should consider root causes that are not entirely within the individual and not leap too quickly to castigating individuals. And we should cast the net wide for root causes and plausibly helpful interventions, and test hypotheses rigorously. Some proposed remedies for racism, sexism and other bad attitudes may do more harm than good. It does not make one a racist, sexist or bad person to say that we should ask for evidence about the effects of various remedies. (And we should gather evidence for the effects of remedies recommended by those on the right as well as by those on the left. For example, effective crime control measures that make people feel safer might reduce racism, or certain kinds of easy cultural training that immigrants are happy to receive might make them seem less threatening to the native-born.)

In the last few years I have become aware of the serious possibility that for a long time we were successful at driving racism and sexism underground by silencing people with such attitudes, without fully convincing people to relinquish such attitudes. Silencing people with such attitudes may reduce the chance of transmitting those attitudes to the rising generation, but it also causes the resentment people almost always feel when they can’t say their piece. If, as a society, we had not succumbed to the temptation o trying to silence people, we might—after great effort—now be further along the road to persuasion. Letting people say their piece often seems threatening when we disagree strongly (and perhaps especially when we disagree strongly for good and sound reasons), but I believe letting people say their piece and then responding with our views is the wiser course.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid reading anyone out of the human race—not even those who would read others out of the human race. Given our evolutionary heritage, taking an “Us and Them” approach is extremely contagious. Let’s not play with that kind of fire. In a cultural war like the one we are in now, I believe it is the side that can best rise above the us-versus-them temptation that will prevail.

Related posts and links, beginning with those flagged above: