Andrew Sullivan offers a sobering jeremiad on why America is ripe for tyranny. He may be correct, because we’re losing the distinction between facts and feelings. (More)
“Testing democracy’s singular weakness”
Sullivan begins with a discussion of The Republic, where Plato describing how democracy tends toward greater freedom and equality, and argued that plants the seeds of tyranny:
This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed – with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.
Sullivan argues that we are in that place, and that Donald Trump has seized upon that weakness:
Could it be that the Donald has emerged from the populist circuses of pro wrestling and New York City tabloids, via reality television and Twitter, to prove not just Plato but also James Madison right, that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention … and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”? Is he testing democracy’s singular weakness – its susceptibility to the demagogue – by blasting through the firewalls we once had in place to prevent such a person from seizing power? Or am I overreacting?
Sullivan then zeroes in on the plight of the white working class … and by that he explicitly means white men (note my italics):
This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread. It’s a period in which we have become far more aware of the historic injustices that still haunt African-Americans and yet we treat the desperate plight of today’s white working class as an afterthought. And so late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain – and has actually helped exacerbate.
For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.
And that’s where Sullivan goes off the rails.
“That anxiety doesn’t necessarily reflect their personal economic circumstances”
Sullivan has bought the 2016 meme that Donald Trump won the GOP nod by appealing to “the white working class.” It’s a common meme, repeated here by Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum in response to Trump’s Cinco de Mayo taco bowl tweet:
This is not an awkward and embarrassing outreach to Hispanics. It’s not aimed at Hispanics at all. It’s aimed at white people. This is the kind of thing that Trump’s base – the white working class – views as a perfectly sincere appreciation of Mexican culture. It says, “Yes, I want a wall, and yes, I want to deport all the illegal immigrants in the country. But that doesn’t mean I hate Mexicans.” It’s basically an affirmation to Trump’s voters that they aren’t racists.
But FiveThirthEight’s Nate Silver offers data to disprove that meme:
But the definition of “working class” and similar terms is fuzzy, and narratives like these risk obscuring an important and perhaps counterintuitive fact about Trump’s voters: As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.
It’s not merely that the Republican Party is mostly white, as Silver cites census data showing the median family income for non-Hispanic whites is $62,000 … lower than the median of $72,000 for Trump voters. Nor is it a case of Trump drawing less educated voters; 44% of his supporters have college degrees, as compared to 33% of non-Hispanic white adults and 29% of all U.S. adults. Silver concludes:
This is not to say that Trump voters are happy about the condition of the economy. Substantial majorities of Republicans in every state so far have said they’re “very worried” about the condition of the U.S. economy, according to exit polls, and these voters have been more likely to vote for Trump. But that anxiety doesn’t necessarily reflect their personal economic circumstances, which for many Trump voters, at least in a relative sense, are reasonably good.
Dispelling that myth is important because it points to a deeper dysfunction in our political dialogue….
“The anger of perceived disenfranchisement”
Sullivan’s argument includes this tacit syllogism:
- (a) White men feel like they’re “hanging by a thread;” therefore,
(b) Our political system should prioritize the needs of white men.
I emphasized the “feel like” because, the $72,000 median household income for Trump voters is in the 60th percentile. And even if you assume they are angry-in-empathy for the plight of other whites, as Silver noted, the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites is well above the $55,000 median for all U.S. families.
Yes, some white men are struggling. But census data show that families led by women, and families of color, face sterner challenges. And the oft-cited Esquire/NBC News survey found that voter anger did not correlate to personal financial hardship:
Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America’s role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they’d had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment. When we cross-tabulate these feelings with reports of daily anger (which are higher among whites than nonwhites), we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement – a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn’t pan out – rather than actual hardship. (If anger were tied to hardship, we’d expect to see nonwhite Americans – who report having a harder time making ends meet than whites, per question three – reporting higher levels of anger. This is not the case.)
Conflating “the anger of perceived disenfranchisement” with actual financial hardship is a case of treating feelings as facts, an increasing trend discussed by the New York Times’ Molly Worthen:
In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”
These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.
Worthen calls that a “contagion” for good reason.
“You cannot disagree”
On the surface, “I feel like” seems like hedging. Rather than stating a fact, or at least an opinion, “I feel like” frames the claim as one’s own emotional response. It seems like humility, a tacit acceptance that others may feel differently. But Worthen explains the fallacy of that seeming humility:
Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too – but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.
When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.
“It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, said, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”
Nor is this merely a matter of recognizing the emotional element of reasoning:
The problem here is not the open discussion of emotions. Ancient philosophers ranging from Confucius to the Greek Stoics acknowledged the role that emotion plays in human reasoning. In the 1990s, after many years of studying patients with brain damage, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio put forward a hypothesis that is now widely accepted: In a healthy brain, emotional input is a crucial part of reasoning and decision making.
So when I called Dr. Damasio, who teaches at the University of Southern California, I worried that he might strike down my humanistic observations with unflinching scientific objectivity. He didn’t – he hates the phrase as much as I do. He called it “bad usage” and “a sign of laziness in thinking,” not because it acknowledges the presence of emotion, but because it is an imprecise hedge that conceals more than it reveals. “It doesn’t follow that because you have doubts, or because something is tempered by a gut feeling, that you cannot make those distinctions as clear as possible,” he said.
This is what is most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction – and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction – between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.
“I feel” …
In the context of a relationship, emphasizing “I feel” can be very useful. For example, let’s say a family member or colleague says “I’m so glad I solved that problem!” … without acknowledging that you helped with the solution. There are many ways you might respond, including:
- “When you say you’re glad you solved that problem, I feel left out, as if my help didn’t matter.”
Note that the emphasized phrase – “I feel left out” – is not an opinion. It is a factual statement of an emotional response. The speaker also accepts responsibility for his/her response, unlike with a statement like “You make me feel….” Nor is that statement an accusation (“You ignored me”). It admits the possibility that the other person merely misspoke, without intending to dismiss your efforts.
All of that creates space for this reply:
- “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ignore what you did. I’m just happy because we got that problem out of the way.”
Of course, not every “I feel” statement will yield that easy a resolution. Sometimes the hurt was intended, or so callous and severe that intent is irrelevant. Even then, beginning with “I feel” – followed by a factual statement of your emotional response – compels you to assess and express your feelings and to take ownership of them.
… versus “I feel like“
Conversely, “I feel like white men can’t get a break anymore” is not a factual statement of an emotional response. It’s an opinion masquerading as a feeling. And that’s common when the word “like” follows “I feel,” as a New York Times reader and psychotherapist explains:
As a psychotherapist I hear that phrase quite often from a patient who is answering my question about how they feel. I believe whenever someone starts off with “I feel like….” They are never answering about how they feel. They are always answering what they are thinking. When someone is able to say “I feel…” And then state a feeling without the word “like” in front of it, they are have some connection to what they are feeling in their body as opposed to what they are thinking in their head.
There is no such feeling as “Donald Trump is a doer.” That is a belief, a thought. Feeling indicates sensation.
Anger, sadness, joy, a headache; these are feelings.
In my work as a cognitive behavioral therapist, one of my primary functions is to help clients distinguish between thought and emotion.
“I feel like she doesn’t like me.”
No, chances are that you THINK she doesn’t like you, and that probably makes you FEEL something, sadness perhaps.
Being more accurate with our language gives us a better handle on managing our emotions.
It also gives us a better handle on discussing political priorities. In terms of public policy, it’s important to distinguish actual hardship from “the anger of perceived disenfranchisement.”
Trump has treated white male resentment – “the anger of perceived disenfranchisement” – as the policy problem of 2016. Like Sullivan, too many in our media have echoed that frame, although most hide it under the race- and gender-hidden frame of “voter anger.” And that plays right into Trump’s hands.
Feelings matter, but when our media treat them as facts then public policy becomes about greasing the squeakiest wheels. Those are not always the wheels most in need of grease. Often they’re simply the wheels nearest the loudest microphones.
That’s not a feeling. That’s a fact.
Photo Credit: Victor G. Jeffreys II
Good day and good nuts