Trickle-Down Tolerance

Trickle-Down Tolerance
By Wade Lee Hudson

A review
Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America
John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck

Princeton University Press, 2018
352 p., $29.95

Human beings are a bundle of contradictions. Multiple instincts compete. Then, from time to time, external factors trigger particular inner experiences and the national mood fluctuates. Politicians, especially the President, amplify one human potential or another. To garner support, new leaders contrast themselves to old leaders. The pendulum swings.

In Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck examine this dynamic. They argue:

Simply being a member of a group is not the same thing as identifying or sympathizing with that group. The key is whether people feel a psychological attachment to a group….

The…power of group identities…depends on context. One part of the context is the possibility of gains and losses for the group…,[which] can be tangible…or symbolic, such as psychological status….

Another and arguably even more important element of the context is political actors. They help articulate the content of a group identity, or what it means to be part of a group. Political actors also identify, and sometimes exaggerate or even invent, threats to a group. Political actors can then make group identities and attitudes more salient and elevate them as criteria for decision-making.

Group loyalties “can and often do” create hostility toward other groups. But relationships to other groups “do not have to be competitive.

Prior to the 2016 election

several high-profile incidents between the police and communities of color made Americans more pessimistic about race relations than they had been in decades…. Moreover, there was no recession or major war, either of which tends to dominate an election-year landscape…. This created more room for different issues to matter….

Another crucial part of the context: even before 2016, group identities and attitudes were becoming more aligned with partisanship…. The party coalitions were increasingly “racialized….”

Because Trump, Clinton, and the other candidates focused so much on issues tied to racial and ethnic identities, it is no surprise that those identities and issues mattered to voters….

Economic and political dissatisfaction…was powerfully shaped by political identities. With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans had much less favorable opinions about conditions in the country. But dissatisfaction also reflected racial attitudes: under Obama, white Americans’ feelings about blacks became associated with many things, including whether and how they felt about the economy. “Racial anxiety” was arguably driving economic anxiety…..

Since the election, many commentators have analyzed whether race or class was most important in tipping the election to Trump. As I take Identity Politics, the answer is both, with each interwoven with the other.

Republicans who said that “both their personal finances and the national economy had gotten worse over the past year” were more likely to support Trump during the primary campaign.

But “their actual income” was not the key factor. Rather, it was “how people felt…. Trump’s support was tied more to people’s economic dissatisfaction.” A sense of “competition with minority groups” was key. As Arlie Russell Hochschild reported in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, many on the hard-right are very concerned about others “cutting in line” and getting more public support than they are.

The importance of economic insecurity was most apparent when economic sentiments were refracted through group identities. Worries about losing a job were less strongly associated with Trump support than were concerns about losing jobs to minorities…. This idea…predated Trump. He just leveraged it to his advantage.

With many Trump supporters, their hostility toward minorities may not be rooted in racism. According to Identity Crisis, that issue “remains a hotly debated topic in the social science literature. People may be hostile without being “racist.” They may not consider certain groups to be genetically inferior.

Regardless, “perceptions of deservingness” is critical. Many believe

African Americans no longer face much discrimination and are receiving unearned special favors. Indeed, whites who hold these beliefs often cite “reverse discrimination” as being a more serious problem…. [That sense] increases whites’ solidarity with other whites and opposition to minority groups….

Consistent with a long line of research showing that group interests are more potent politically than self-interest, economic anxiety was channeled more through white identity politics than it was through Trump supporters’ concern for their own well-being…. This is  “racialized economics”: the belief that undeserving groups are getting ahead while your group is left behind….

Economic insecurity was connected to partisan choices when it was refracted through racial grievances…. The dividing line between Clinton and Trump…was whether a racial minority deserved help….

After the election, Clinton acknowledged that her campaign “likely contributed to heightened racial consciousness.” “As a result,” she wrote,” some white voters may have decided I wasn’t on their side.” This is a tidy summary of what happened…. The campaign magnified this polarization…. It was also remarkable for how it crystallized the country’s identity crisis: sharp divisions on what America has become, and what it should be.

While reading about the backlash among Trump supporters to the ascendance of an African-American to the White House, I kept thinking about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s work on Reconstruction’s attempt to promote racial justice by restructuring Southern society. White backlash led to Jim Crow and the restoration of white supremacy. Then, decades later, the civil rights movement, a Second Reconstruction, reversed some of that injustice and the election of Obama. That led to a second backlash, Trumpism.

Now, Trump has provoked another backlash, which Identity Politics identifies as “trickle-down tolerance.” Trump has exposed ugly sides of the American character and most Americans don’t like it. They want America to live up to its highest ideals. Trump’s statements “may have emboldened some people to act on their prejudice.” But overall

Trump was actually having the exact opposite effect on public opinion…. It is common for public opinion to shift against the president in what the political scientist Christopher Wlezien has call a “thermostatic” fashion…. From late 2015 through 2017, {compared to previously] more Americans rated Muslims favorably, thought that discrimination was a major cause of racial inequality, supported athletes kneeling, and thought gender discrimination and sexual harassment were serious problems.

And only distinct minorities of Americans support Trump’s signature border wall, perceive immigrants to be a burden, and want to decrease immigration.

But that shift has come at a cost. These changing attitudes on race, immigration, Islam, and gender were driven primarily by Democrats. The result has been accelerated partisan polarization over the same identity-inflected issues that helped make the 2016 election so divisive…. These growing divisions…threaten to make political conflict less about what the government should do and more about what it means to be an American.

In the American public writ large, there is also a definition of “acting like an American” that is inclusive. It defines American identity by values  — such as believing in the country’s ideals, working hard to achieve success, and contributing to your community — rather than by race, nationality, religion, or partisanship…. Political leaders…can also ask us to welcome others, to find common ground, and even to heal the country.

So far, it seems Democratic candidates for President may nurture this healing by leading with a focus on American values, rather than focusing on technocratic policy solutions. Policy is important, but values come first.

DeRay Mckesson and the Domination-Submission System

Societies are based on self-perpetuating social systems. That’s why they’re stable. Personal, social, cultural, economic, and political elements are woven together, reinforce one another, and serve a common purpose.

America is fueled by the drive to climb social ladders, gain more wealth, status, or power, and look down on and dominate those below — with little regard for others’ suffering. In doing so, we learn to submit to, envy, and resent those above us.

On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope by DeRay Mckesson, a dramatic memoir about his activism interwoven with essays, clarifies these dynamics. He writes:

There was a time when I believed that racism was rooted in self-interest or economics — the notion that white supremacy emerged as a set of ideas to codify practices rooted in profit. I now believe that the foundation of white supremacy rests in a preoccupation with dominance at the expense of others, and that the self-interest and economic benefits are a result, not a reason or cause. I believe this because of the way that white supremacy still proliferates in contexts where there is no self-interest other than the maintenance of power. I have seen it hold sway even in contexts where it does not materially benefit the white people who hold the beliefs.

Mckesson argues that if we are to “change the system,” we must see how individual decisions “aggregate over time” to intentionally create “power over” rather than “power with.” He urges whites to not “forget that there is a larger system that led to their personal advantages,” and defines institutions as “the collective response of individuals, hardened over time.” This process produces “structural issues at play that promote oppression…., an intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions that allow the privilege to manifest.”

His image of the bully illustrates the point. As a child, a neighborhood bully routinely brutalized him on his way home. As an adult, he’s suffered systematic injustice at the hands of another bully, white supremacy, which is based on “the notion that the lives of white people are inherently worth more than those of anyone else.” The bully aims to “convince you that no damage was done or that you deserved it. He aims to strip you of your power.”

The bully is everywhere and white people are “collateral damage.” As time passes

the bully only becomes more vicious, more insidious, more institutionalized…. We are all of us at risk…. The bully is coming for [others] too…. White supremacy is about the fleecing of power to gain more power. So while the bully may not be after you today, he will surely target your car or hop over your fence in due time — because the bully is aiming to amass power, regardless of its victims.

Bullies are enabled. “There were bystanders who lived on my grandmother’s block who chose to do nothing every single day.” Bullies are propped up by killing people, artificial divisions, false information, efforts to “pull us apart,” and a natural tendency to “believe the story that aligns with what we already feel to be true.” And most of all, they’re propped up by passivity.

The final chapter, “Letter to an Activist,” opens, “You have more power than you know, more power than they will ever want you to know, and they will spend their lives trying to hide you from yourself.” The system serves to “usher” people into “subjection” and teaches people, “you are the problem,” when in fact “the problem is rooted in the world.”

When faced with injustice, we learn to “accept the trauma and go about our daily lives [and] suffocate in surrender.” But we not only surrender “our imagination of what tomorrow could look like.” We also surrender “our agency in actively shaping what today feels like.” As Assata Shakur said, “The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows.”

Robert Jensen wrote, “The real White People’s Burden is to civilize ourselves.” To do so, we must overcome divisions aggravated by systematic socialization.

You have surely learned things by now that you did not choose to learn: misogyny, homophobia, sexism, and so on. You learned these things because they are often so deeply entrenched in the fabric of the culture.

Mckesson insists

our goal…is never to extend the idea of domination, but rather to change the conception of power itself. Indeed, we must end the idea of domination as an organizing principle in society. Audre Lorde said it best…. “The only way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence.”

Speaking to that need for personal transformation rooted in greater understanding of the dominant system, Mckesson argues that a persistent “chain of questions” can lead people “to reinvestigate basic truths, which then lead to larger acknowledgements.” Awakening smothered innate curiosity can enhance that learning process. Awareness then “can be applied to changing the systems and mind-sets that prop up the system.”

This systemic transformation requires activists to “never let [their] power drown out the power of [their] peers.” Mutual empowerment calls for the careful management of “shared imaginations” and a commitment to “envision an entire system and structure that has never existed here.”

To resolve internal tensions among activists, Mckesson urges activists to “name the constraints up front.” But he also challenges us to “then ignore…and work around” those constraints — by adhering to “a strong moral compass that individuals use to hold themselves accountable to their own values, beliefs, and commitments.”

Describing an instance when a Ferguson demonstrator yelled “You fucking faggots” at the police and a fellow demonstrator told him, “Man, that offended me,” Mckesson wrote:

In the process of challenging a system that was killing us, we were learning to stand up to the silence that also tried to kill us, and that it was perhaps this that would be the lasting success of the protests at the personal level for each of us.

Fighting for a “larger freedom” requires “an ethic of freedom and liberation in our interpersonal relationships.” We must be “attentive to explicitly processing the future that we want to build and the barriers that have kept that world from existing; otherwise we can find ourselves re-creating or re-producing conflict.”

According to Mckesson, that liberation involves refusing to be confined to any one “primary identity.” He disagrees with those who argue that “the embrace of [multiple] identities somehow weakens us collectively…. We have to remember that we are all of our identities at once, every time.”

He recommends:

Be mindful not to internalize the ills of the world, but to be able to recognize them and then actively work to disrupt them and undo their damage…. The work of unlearning is almost harder, in some ways, than the work of learning. But you will need to identify those things and unlearn them and help those around you to do the same…. And be mindful not to reproduce the same elitism and gatekeeping in the work of social justice that we aim to remove in larger society.

Concerning strategies for moving forward, Mckesson insists “we have to name what we fight for” and offers some guidelines. First of all, “we must focus on the type of world we want to live in and devise a plan for getting there, as opposed to devising a strategy centered on opposition.” His vision for the future includes ending poverty and homelessness, developing “a robust program for addressing mental illness,” and assuring ”living wage and work opportunities for everyone.”

This approach differs from those who reject “reform” and “sacrifice people’s immediate well-being while holding out for an ‘ideal’ plan.” Rather, Mckesson supports working “to change the conditions of our lived reality today, while maintaining a commitment to changing the core power structures that led to the conditions that caused us to fight in the first place.”

These struggles can be based on

a set of core commitments: first, a seat at the table requires that you bring the truth with you while recognizing that, second, you are not the only person who can bring the truth, and, last, that you work to keep the door open for others.

Otherwise, “the work becomes less about liberation and more about self-service.” With the right attitude, however, we can awaken our “latent power that’s seldom used to its full extent…[and] help one another stand in our own power.”

Mckesson’s book inspires me. I know no book that touches on so many issues that are so important to me. It’s particularly encouraging to know that someone in his position appreciates the importance of how activists operate. I’d like to see his podcast, Pod Save the People, address that issue more than it has.

The tension between idealism and pragmatism is hard to balance. Mckesson’s defense of “reform” is compelling. I think he could have made it stronger by elaborating on what he means by “maintaining a commitment to changing the core power structures.” As I see it, that commitment can be maintained in large part by consistently clarifying that no one victory or defeat is final. Transformation is never-ending. Moreover, while supporting immediate relief of suffering, we can prioritize winnable reforms that involve restructuring.

Nevertheless, I consider On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope to be a brilliant book that includes powerful personal narratives and important insights concerning how we can move toward fundamental transformation rooted in partnership rather than domination.

By encouraging members to support one another in their self-development, activist organizations could strengthen our ability to achieve that systemic transformation. Unfortunately, few organizations do. Perhaps Mckesson’s book will prompt more to move in that direction.

The Autocracy App

The Autocracy App
By Jacob Weisberg OCTOBER 25, 2018 ISSUE
The New York Review of Books

A review of:

  • Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy
    by Siva Vaidhyanathan
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
    by Jaron Lanier

…A professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, Vaidhyanathan is a disciple of Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death. In that prescient pre-Internet tract, Postman wrote that Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, portrayed the dystopia most relevant to our age. The dangers modern societies face, Postman contends, are less censorship or repression than distraction and diversion, the replacement of civic engagement by perpetual entertainment.

Vaidhyanathan sees Facebook, a “pleasure machine” in which politics and entertainment merge, as the culmination of Postman’s Huxleyan nightmare. However, the pleasure that comes from absorption in social media is more complicated than the kind that television delivers. It encourages people to associate with those who share their views, creating filter bubbles and self-reinforcing feedback loops. Vaidhyanathan argues that by training its users to elevate feelings of agreement and belonging over truth, Facebook has created a gigantic “forum for tribalism.”


…What would the world look like if Facebook succeeded in becoming the Operating System of Our Lives? That status has arguably been achieved only by Tencent in China. Tencent runs WeChat, which combines aspects of Facebook, Messenger, Google, Twitter, and Instagram. People use its payment system to make purchases from vending machines, shop online, bank, and schedule appointments. Tencent also connects to the Chinese government’s Social Credit System, which gives users a score, based on data mining and surveillance of their online and offline activity. You gain points for obeying the law and lose them for such behavior as traffic violations or “spreading rumors online.”

Full implementation is not expected till 2020, but the system is already being used to mete out punishments to people with low scores. These include preventing them from traveling, restricting them from certain jobs, and barring their children from attending private schools. In the West online surveillance is theoretically voluntary, the price we pay for enjoying the pleasure machine—a privatized 1984 by means of Brave New World.

Male Trouble

Male Trouble
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
New York Review of Books

A review of:

The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It
by Warren Farrell and John Gray
BenBella, 493 pp., $25.95

Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism
by Michael Kimmel
University of California Press, 263 pp., $29.95

White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out
by Christian Picciolini
Hachette, 275 pp., $15.99 (paper)


My letter:

Dear Arlie

I very much appreciate your important and insightful “Male Trouble” in the New York Review of Books.

In addition to the “roots” you address in the section on solutions, I recommend more attention to cultural changes. Beyond making it “heroic to be a great dad,”  a new paradigm of modern humanity could replace Faludi’s “paradigm of modern masculinity.” The biological differences between men and women are relatively insignificant, so far as I can tell. Our shared humanity is key.

Moreover, we need to redefine the American Dream, or perhaps return to its original definition, which assumed a gradual accumulation of wealth. Widespread, rabid greed is a relatively new phenomenon. The drive to climb social ladders and look down on and dominate those below is deadly.

Americans for Humanity: A Declaration” aims to contribute to that kind of transformation. If you will, please consider signing it. (BTW, the other day, I sent you an email about it with a bad link. Sorry about that if you tried it.)

Carry it on,
Wade Lee Hudson

Imperial Exceptionalism

By Jackson Lears
New York Review of Books
February 7, 2019 issue

A review of:

Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States
by Victor Bulmer-Thomas
Yale University Press, 459 pp., $32.50
Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition
by David C. Hendrickson
Oxford University Press, 287 pp., $34.95

To read, click here.