Sciencing in public

As someone really worried with how badly Americans argue about public policies, I’ve especially worried about highly politicized attacks on science, and how hard it is for scientists to get pretty basic concepts understood. As a historian of public argumentation, I’m unhappily aware that the tendency to attack scientific discoveries on purely political grounds isn’t new. And a lot of people have written things about how science is attacked, and bemoaned our inability to get scientific findings to have real impact on public policy, but I think those things haven’t had much impact because of their rhetoric.

Lots of people have said that scientists’ rhetoric is flawed because it’s too technical and academic, but, honestly, I don’t think that’s the problem. I think the two major problems that vex public uses of science in public policy are: culturally, we have a vague definition of what is a “science,” and second, we have a thoroughly muddled notion of what “objectivity” is.

And scientists themselves don’t help. In public, too many scientists conflate “science” and “what I think is good science” and appeal to an inconsistent epistemology.

What people engaged in research about climate change, vaccines, evolution, and gender need to understand is that the people who attack what some of us think of as science do so by citing what they think of as science.

Behind the arguments that we think of as “science” arguments are, it seems to me, two deep misunderstandings: first, what a “science” is; second, what epistemology (model of knowledge) is right. The first one is relatively straightforward, but the second, more complicated one, is the really crucial one.

Part of the problem is that the cultural understanding of what it means to be a “science” is muddled, and, for a large number of people, simply outdated. Until well into the 20th century, various disciplines were called “sciences” that had nothing to do with what we now think of as the scientific method, insofar as they relied on non-falsifiable claims (eugenics, for instance). But they called themselves sciences and they were accepted as such because they had numbers, they had experts, and they had peer-reviewed journals. For many people, that older notion of a “science” prevails: a science is something that is done by people with degrees in fields that seem kind of science-y and have a lot of math. (Look at the oft-shared list of “scientists” who say global warming is a hoax.)

There are various organizations out there (and long have been) with very clear political agenda that call themselves “sciences” or “scientific” and manage to mimic the rhetorical moves of sciences. This, too, is nothing new. When various organizations abandoned race as a useful concept, racists formed their own organizations and journals that only published “studies” that fit their political agenda (John P. Jackson’s Segregationists for Science describes this process elegantly). Meanwhile, they railed at the mainstream journals for being politicized. They managed to look like “science” to many people because they had authors who had degrees in science, some of whom worked as “scientists.” That notion of science is an identity argument: science is the work done by people we think of as scientists.

The same thing happened when psychologists decided that homosexuality was not a mental illness—organizations formed with the political agenda of only supporting research that pathologized homosexuality (and, once again, that condemned other research as “politicized”). And they call themselves scientific organizations, with “research” prominent in their titles. There are similar organizations and webpages (and some journals) for organizations that promote Young Earth Creationism, anti-vaccine rhetoric, attacks on climate change, and all sorts of other ideologically charged issues. And, as with the pro-segregationist rhetoric, they are explicitly politicized while projecting that condemnation onto their critics. Because they are explicit that they are looking for “science” that supports beliefs they already have, one of the very straightforward ways that they are not sciences is that their claims are non-falsifiable.

They are scientific, they say, because they can generate studies and data that support their beliefs. In the case of creationism and homophobia, the groups often insist that they are proving that Scripture and “science” say the same thing. They can support their readings with data or quotes from people with degrees in science, and with scientific-sounding explanations. That’s cherry-picking, of course, but it means that they can invoke the authority of “science” to support their claims.

(And here I should probably come clean: I self-identify as Christian, and I think they cherry-pick Scripture just as much as they cherry-pick “science.”)

When I first wandered into these places, where people at odds with the scientific consensus insisted that they were doing science, I just assumed that there were being deliberately disingenuous, but I no longer think so. For me, as for many people, there is “normal science,” which is the data being produced by people publishing falsifiable studies in peer-reviewed journals. Science, furthermore, has the quality that scholars in rhetoric call “good faith argumentation,” meaning that the people putting forward a claim can imagine being presented with data that would cause them to abandon it (there are some other characteristics, but that one is the important one here). But that isn’t how everyone thinks about science–it isn’t about method, but about the identity of the person doing the work.

Young Earth Creationists, for instance, fail at every point mentioned above (except posture). They can cite data to support their claims (some of which, but not much, is true), but they can’t articulate the conditions under which they would abandon their narrative about the creation of the earth.

So, why do they continue to think of themselves as doing science?

It’s the identity argument. As I said earlier, for many people, “science” is the activity done by people who have degrees in a science field, regardless of the institution, and regardless of the discipline. So, how do they distinguish between good and bad science? Good science is true.

For them, science is a relationship to reality—if you’re a “scientist,” then you have a direct connection to the logos that God breathed into the fabric of the universe. Thus, that 700 scientists would say that global warming is false shows that people with that kind of unmediated knowledge make a claim. That faith in unmediated knowledge is often called the “naïve realist” epistemology.

That “unmediated knowledge” is crucial to all this, and it’s where scientists trip themselves up. It’s important to understand that the people arguing for young earth creation believe that they can simply look and see the truth–so any argument that says “You’re wrong, because you can simply look and see a different answer” isn’t going to work rhetorically. They are looking, and they can find evidence to support their position.

And that raises the second, fairly complicated, problem about epistemology. And scientists have issues with this, I think, because when in public they’re naive realists, and they insist you’re either a naive realist or a postmodern relativist (really? do they think creationists are postmodernists? they’re pre-modernists), but when at home they’re skeptics. Science itself rejects naive realism, so scientists need to stop talking as though there is naive realism or post-modernism. (In fact, that’s how creationists talk, which is a different post.)

A non-trivial complication in how the public argues about “science” is that what I earlier called “normal science” is often advocated by people who do and don’t claim that they have unmediated knowledge of the world. That’s a rhetorical problem. Scientists and young earth creationists (and all the other advocates of bad science out there) appeal to and reject naïve realism.

Briefly, many defenders of science in public debates make two claims simultaneously: science is indisputably true; science is better than religion because scientists change their mind when presented with new evidence—science is falsifiable. In other words, science looks true to people AND the results of scientific studies are contingent claims that could be proven false. So, as I said, in public discourse, too many scientists appeal to naive realism, but the scientific method itself rejects naive realism.

To many people, that looks as though scientists are saying that, although we’ve changed our mind a lot in the past (meaning “science” can be wrong) we are absolutely right now. Or, more bluntly: science is true but it’s been false.

And, let’s be blunt: it’s been false. Eugenics was mainstream science. It had bad methods, but it was mainstream science, and it was taught in science classes. It didn’t look bad at the time. Medicine claims to be a science, as does nutrition, and it has made a lot of claims that scientists in those fields now believe to be false.

Scientists need to reject the false binary of “you either believe that science tells us things that are obviously true” or “you are postmodernist literary critic who believes that all claims are equally true.” That is not only a falsifiable claim, but a false one. Young earth creationists are cheerfully unaffected by postmodernism anything, and they say that they believe things that are obviously true. Also, there are very few “postmodernists” who say that “all claims are equally true”–Feyerabend comes to mind, and very few others, and no, that isn’t actually what Foucault or Derrida said. (And I don’t even really like Foucault or Derrida, and I think that’s just an outrageously ignorant way to characterize what they’re saying.)

Keep in mind, Popper said that objectivity isn’t about what an individual does. A claim is objective, he said, because it’s an object in the world, and he said an objective claim isn’t necessarily true. So, since Popper said that an individual scientist isn’t necessarily objective, is he a postmodern relativist?

Good science isn’t about the cognitive processes of individuals engaged in science; it’s about the arguments people in science have. When people claim that you either believe what “science” says right now or you’re a postmodernist relativist hippy, they’re rejecting the scientific method.

The whole premise of the scientific method, especially concepts like a control group, falsifiability, and double-blind studies, is that people are prone to confirmation bias (a good study doesn’t set out to confirm a hypothesis: it sets out to falsify one). The scientific method presumes that humans’ perception is clouded. That acknowledging that individuals can’t see the truth doesn’t make the underlying epistemology either solipsistic or relativist (both of which are, oddly enough, often misnamed as postmodernism—they long predate modernism, let alone postmodernism). It means that science generally exists in the realm of skepticism, sometimes radical, sometimes the mild version that Karl Popper called fallibilism. For Popper, there is a truth out there, and it can be perceived by individuals, but individuals are fallible judges of when we have and have not reached the truth.

Science isn’t about binaries. It’s about continua. There are some claims that could, in principle, have been falsified, but have so withstood such tests that it isn’t even interesting to consider the possibility—such as evolution. There are aspects of evolution about which there is disagreement, and about which new consenses continue to form (such as the direct ancestor of homo sapiens), but all of those disagreements are subject to proof and disproof through further research. And that is the difference between evolution and creationism: religious faith, by its very nature, cannot be subject to disproof. Science is, fundamentally, a rejection of naive realism and of binaries about certainty: it says we should be skeptical about all claims, and we should think about claims in terms of how certain we are of them.

It’s no coincidence that science and skepticism arose at the same time, and, in fact, that’s the argument that scientists make about how science is different from religion: a true scientist will abandon her beliefs if the data disconfirm them, but religion is about rejecting the data if it disconfirms the beliefs.

Let me rephrase my original statement of the problem: scientists make a rhetorical claim (their claims should be granted more credence because of how they are supported), and an epistemological one (their arguments are true). I sincerely believe that science is in such a bad way right now because too many advocates of science reject what they know: that science isn’t about being certain or not, but about how certain you are, and what are the conditions under which you should change your mind.

The epistemology underlying science is a skeptical one, and scientists know that. When they’re arguing in public, they need to stop acting as though there is either naive realism or postmodern relativism. Scientists are skeptics who argue passionately for their point of view.

Right now, our political world is demagogic, and that means that our political world is dominated by the notion that there are good people who perceive the obviously correct way to do things and those assholes. We disagree about who are the assholes, but we all agree that it’s a binary.

What science could and should do for us is show a different way of thinking about thinking–that the right course of action depends on a correct understanding of the world as it is, and there is no correct understanding immediately available to us, but there are understandings that look pretty damn good, given all the research that’s been done.


I’m not saying that scientists need to argue better in public; while I think the whole project of sciencing in public is wonderful, I also think, ultimately, scientists aren’t obligated to be rhetoricians. (Some of them are wonderful rhetoricians, such as Steven Weinberg, but that shouldn’t be a requirement.) Instead, I think we need, as a culture, a better understanding of how knowledge isn’t a binary between certain and uncertain, but a continuum. I think, oddly enough, that the solution to our current problem of fake science isn’t really in science, but in the study of knowledge.

Among Democrats (Compromise, Purity, and Lefty Politics)

Among Democrats, there are a lot of narratives about the 2016 election, and two of them are highly factional (that is, they assume an us or them, with us being the faction of truth and beauty and them being the people who are leading us astray). One is that Clinton’s election was tanked by Bernie-bros who were all young white males too obsessed with purity to take the mature view and vote for Clinton. The other is that the DNC, an aged and moribund institution, foisted Clinton onto Dems when she was obviously the wrong candidate.

Both of those narratives are implicit calls for purity, for a Democratic Party (or left) that is unified on one policy agenda—maybe the policy agenda is a centrist one, and maybe it’s one much further left—but the agreement is that we need to become more purely something. Both narratives are empirically false (or else non-falsifiable), patronizing, and just plain offensive. In other words, both of those narratives are driven by the desire to prove that “us” is the group of truth and goodness and “them” is the group of muddled, fuddled, and probably corrupt idjits.

And, as long as the discourse on the left is which “us” is the right us, progressive politics will lose.

There isn’t actually a divide in the left—there’s a continuum. People who can be persuaded to vote Dem range from authoritarians drawn to charismatic leadership (anyone who persuades them that s/he is decisive enough to enact the obviously correct simple policies the US needs) all the way through various kinds of neoliberalism to some versions of democratic socialism. And there are all those people who can vote Dem on the basis of a single issue—abortion or gun control, for instance. When Dems insist that only one point (or small range) on that continuum is the right one, Dems lose because none of those points on the continuum has enough voters to win an election. That’s why purity wars among the Dems are devastating.

While voting Dem is actually a continuum, there are many who insist it is a binary—those whose political agenda the DNC should represent (theirs) and those whose agenda is actually destructive, whose motives are bad, and who cause Dems to lose elections (everyone else—who are compressed into one group).

Here’s what’s interesting to me. It seems to me that everyone who wants Dem candidates to win recognizes that a purity war on the left is bad, and everyone condemns it. Unhappily, being opposed to a purity war in principle and engaging one in effect are not mutually exclusive. There is a really nasty move that a lot of people make in a rhetoric of compromise—we should compromise by your taking my position—and that is what a lot of the “let’s not have a purity war” on the left seems to me to be doing. Let’s not do that. Let’s do something else.

This is about the something else that we might do.

And it’s complicated, and I might be wrong, but I think that Dems will always lose in an “us vs. them” culture because, at its heart, the Dem political agenda is about diversity and fairness, and people drawn to Dem politics tend to value fairness across groups more than loyalty to the ingroup, so any demagogic construction of ingroups and outgroups is going to alienate a lot of potential Dem voters. Sometimes voting Dem is a short-term looking out for your own group, but an awful lot of Dem voters are motivated by the hope of creating a world that includes them. I don’t think Dems will succeed if we grant the premise that Dem politics are about resisting: that only the ingroup is entitled to good things.

But we’re in a culture of demagoguery, in which politics is framed as a battle between Good and Evil, and deliberation (in which people of different points of view come together to work toward a better solution) that we’re in a world of us vs. them, how can Dems create a politics of us and them? That is our challenge.

And I want to make a suggestion about how to meet that challenge that is grounded in my understanding of what has happened in the past, not just 2016 (although that is part), but also to ancient Athens, to opponents of Andrew Jackson, to opponents of Reagan, and in the era of highly-factionalized media. I want to argue that what seem to be obviously right answers are not obvious, and possibly not even right.


  1. In which I watch lefties tear each other to shreds and lose an election we should have won

When I first began to pay attention to politics, and saw how murky, slow, and corrupt it all was, it seemed to me that the problem was clear: people started out with good principles, and then compromised them for short-term gains, and so, Q effing D, we should never compromise. (I saw The Candidate as a young and impressionable person.)

I could look at political issues, and see the obvious course of action. And I could see that political figures weren’t taking it. Obviously, there was something wrong with them. Perhaps they were once idealistic, perhaps they had good ideas, but they were compromising, and, obviously, they shouldn’t; they should do the right thing, not the sort of right thing.

Another obvious point was how significant political change happens: someone sets out a plan that will solve our problems, and refuses to be moved. ML King, Rosa Parks, FDR, Woodrow Wilson, John Muir, Andrew Jackson (no kidding—more about his being presented as a lefty hero below) were all people who achieved what they did because they stood by their principles.

That history was completely, totally, and thoroughly wrong, in that neither Wilson nor Jackson were the progressive heroes I thought and that all of those figures compromised a lot, but, if that’s the history you’re given then you will believe that to compromise necessarily means moving from that obviously right plan (about which you shouldn’t have compromised) to one that is much less right, and the only reason to do that would be pragmatic (aka, Machiavellian) purposes. Therefore, substantial social change and compromise are at odds, and if you want substantial social change, you have to refuse to compromise. (Again, tah fucking dah—there’s a lot of that in easy politics.)

My basic premise was that the correct course of action was obvious, and, therefore, I had to explain why political figures didn’t adopt it. Why would people compromise a policy that is obviously right? And, obviously, they had to deviate from the right course of action in order to get political buy-in from people who value things I don’t value. Or they were bad politicians in the pocket of corporate interests. (Notice how often things seemed obvious to me.)

And then Reagan got elected. Reagan lied like a rug, and yet one of the first things his fans said about him was that he was authentic. He announced his run for Presidency by saying he would support states rights at the site of one of the most notorious civil rights murders. And yet his fans would get enraged if you suggested he appealed to racism.

People loved him, regardless of his policies, his actual history, his lies. They loved his image. (It’s still the case that people admire him for things he never did.)

When he was elected, lefties went to the streets. We protested. The people protesting were ideologically diverse—New Deal Dems, people who had said that there was no difference between him and Carter, radical lefties, moderate lefties, I even saw people who told me they intended to vote for Reagan because it would make the peoples’ revolution more likely, and they were now protesting that the candidate they had supported had won.

There were more than enough people out protesting Reagan’s election to prevent his getting reelected. And, in 1980, we all agreed that he shouldn’t be reelected. Unhappily, we also all agreed that he had been elected because there was too much compromising in the Dem party, that Carter was a warmongering tool of the elite, and the mistake we made was not have a candidate who was pure enough. And, so, we agreed, the solution was for the Dems to put forward a Presidential candidate who was more pure to the obviously right values and less willing to compromise on them. We didn’t get that candidate, we didn’t get a very good candidate in fact (he was pretty boring), but his policies would have been good. And a lot of lefties refused to vote for him.

Unhappily, it turns out we disagreed as to what those obviously right values were.

In 1980, the Democratic Party was the party of unions, immigrants, non-whites, people who believe in a strong safety net, isolationists, humanitarian interventionists, pro-democracy interventionists, people who believe a strong safety net was only possible in a strong economy (what would be later be called third-way neoliberals), environmentalists, people who were critical of environmentalists, and all sorts of other ideologically diverse people.

There wasn’t a party platform on which we could all agree. To support the unions more purely would have, union reps argued, meant virulently opposing looser standards about citizenship and immigration. The anti-racist folks argued for being more inclusive about citizenship and immigration. Environmentalists wanted regulations that could cause manufacturing to move to countries with lower standards, something that would hurt unions. People who wanted no war couldn’t find common ground with people who wanted humanitarian intervention. (And so it’s interesting how conservative the 1980 platform now looks.)

Dems, at that point, four choices: reject the notion that there was a single political agenda that would unify all of its groups (that is, move to a notion of ideological and policy diversity in a party); decide that one group was the single right choice; try to find someone who pleased everyone; try to find candidates who wouldn’t offend anyone; or engage in unification through division (get people to unify on how much they hated some other group).

Mondale was the fourth, most lefties went for the second or fifth. I think we should consider the first.

At the time I was a firm believer in the second, for both good and bad reasons. And lots of other people were too. What we believed is what I have come to think of as the P Funk fallacy: if you free your mind, your ass will follow. I believed that there were principles on which all right-thinking people agree, and that those principles necessarily involve a single policy agenda. Thus, we should first agree on principles, and then our asses will follow.

Lefty politics is the grandchild of the Enlightenment. We believe in universal rights, the possibilities of argument, diversity as a positive good, the hope of a world without revenge as the basis of justice. And, perhaps, we have in our ideological DNA a gene that is not helping us—the Enlightenment is also a set of authors who shared the belief (hope?) that, as Isaiah Berlin said, all difficult questions have a single true answer. I think the hope is that, if we get our theories right—if we really understand the situation—then the correct policy will emerge.

But, there might not be a correct policy, at least not in the sense of a course of action that serves everyone equally well. An economic policy that helps creditors will hurt lenders, and vice versa.[1] In trying to figure out then what kind of economic policy we will have, we can decide we’re the party of lenders, or we’re the party of borrowers, and only support policies that help one or the other. Or, we could be the centrist party, and try to have policies that kinda sorta help everyone a little but not a lot and therefore kinda sorta hurt everyone a little but not a lot. And thereby we’re promoting policies that everyone dislikes—I think Dems have been trying that for a while, and it isn’t working. But neither is deciding that we’ll only be the party of borrowers, since borrowers require lenders who are succeeding enough to lend.

The problem with the whole model of politics being a contest between us and them is that it makes all policy discussions questions of bargaining and compromise. What’s left out is deliberation. But that’s hard to imagine in our current world of, not just identity politics, but of a submission/domination contest between two identities. And, really, that has to stop.

Blaming the left for identity politics is just another example of the right’s tendency toward projection. The Federalist Papers imagines a world in which elections are identity-based (which the Constitution’s defenders saw as preferable to faction-based voting). Since most voters could not possibly personally know any candidate for President or Senate, they should instead vote for someone they could know, and whose judgment they trusted (see, for instance, what #64 says about the electors and the Senate). That person could then know the various candidates and make an informed decision as to which of them had better judgment. So, at each step, people are voting for a person with good judgment, to whom they were delegating their own deliberative powers.

That vision quickly evaporated and was replaced by exactly what the authors of the Constitution had tried to prevent: party politics. And then, by the time of Andrew Jackson, we got a new kind of identity politics: voting for a candidate because he seems to share your identity, and, will therefore look out for people like you. His good judgment comes not from expertise, the ability to deliberate thoughtfully, or deep knowledge of history, but from his being an anti-intellectual, successful, and decisive person who cares about people like you. Through the nineteenth century, the notion of an ideal political figure shifted from someone much smarter than you are to someone not threatening to you.


  1. Factionalism, Andrew Jackson, and the rise of identification

The problem that everyone to the left of the hard right has is the same: that we are in a culture in which rabid factionalism on the part of various right-wing major media is normalized, and anything not rabidly right-wing is condemned as communist. Lefties should be deeply concerned about factionalism (including our own), and careful about how we try to act in such a world. There is are several clear historical lessons for Americans as to what that kind of rabid factionalism does (I’ll just talk about Athens), and a clear lesson from American history as to how we should not try to manage it (the case of Andrew Jackson).

Here’s the short version. The US, when it was founded, was an extraordinary achievement on the part of people well-versed in the histories of democracies, republics, and demagoguery. Their major concern was to make sure that the US would not be like the various republics and democracies with which they were familiar. That included the UK (which was, at that point, immersed in a binary factionalism), various Italian Republics (especially Florence and Venice), the Roman Republic, and Athens.

And Athens is an interesting case, and something about which current Americans should know more. Knowing their Thucydides (via Thomas Hobbes, a post I might write someday), the authors and defenders of the constitution knew that Athens had shot itself in the face because at a certain point (just after the Mytilenean Debate, for those of you who care), everyone in Athens thought about politics in two ways: 1) what is in it (in the short-term) for me; 2) what will enable my political party to succeed?

No one worried about “what is best for Athens” with a vision of “Athens” that included members of the other political party. So, because Athens was in a situation of rabid factionalism, you would cheerfully commit troops to a political action if you thought it would do down the other party. Military decisions were made almost entirely on factional bases.

Thucydides describes the situation. He says that city-state after city-state broke into hyper-factional politics that was almost civil war. All anyone cared about was whether their party succeeded—no one listened to the proposals of the other side with an ear to whether they were suggesting something that might actually help. In fact, being willing to listen to the other side, being able to deliberate with them, looking at an issue from various sides—all of those things were condemned as unmanly dithering. Refusing to call for the most extreme policies or suggesting moderation wasn’t a legitimate position—anyone doing that was just trying to hide that he was a coward. Only people who advocated the most extreme policies was trustworthy; anyone else wasn’t really loyal to the party and so shouldn’t be trusted. Plotting on behalf on the party was admirable, and it didn’t matter how many morals were shattered in those plots—success of the party justified any means. But people weren’t open that they were willing to violate every ethical value they claimed to have in order to have their party triumph; people cloaked their rabid factionalism in ethical and religious language while actually honoring neither. So, Thucydides says, there was a situation in which every good value was associated with your party triumphing, and every bad value associated with their not triumphing.

People worried about their party, and not their country.

We can think, why would anyone do that? And yet, we might do it. No one thought to themselves, “I wish to hurt Athens and so I will only look out for my political party.” Instead, what they probably never thought, consciously, but was the basis for every decision was that only their group was really Athenian. So, they thought (and sincerely believed) anything that promotes the interests of my group is good for Athens because only my group is really Athenian.

Michael Mann, a scholar of genocides, calls this the confusion of ethos and ethnos. The “ethos” of a country is the general culture, and the “ethnos” is one particular ethnic group. What can happen is that specific group decides that it is the real ethos, and therefore any action against other groups is protecting “the people.” They are the only “people” who count. Seeing only your class, political party, ethnic group, or religion as the real identity of the group hammers any possibility of inclusive deliberation. It is also the first step toward the restriction, disempowerment, expulsion, and sometimes extermination of the non-you. While not every instance of “only us counts” ends in mass killing, every kind of mass killing—genocide, politicide, classicide, religoicide—begins with that move.

Even ignoring the issue of the ethics of that way of thinking, it’s a bad way for a community to deliberate. But what they did think, as Thucydides says, is that anything that helped you and your party was a good thing to do, even it was something you would condemn in the other party. You might cheerfully use appeals to religion to try to justify your policies, but if other policies better helped your party, then you’d use religion to justify those policies. No principle other than party mattered.

If the other side proposed a policy, you didn’t assess whether it was a good policy, you were against it. You were especially likely to be against it if it was a good policy, since then they would gain more supporters. You would gleefully gin up a reason that troops should be sent to a losing battle and put an opposition political figure in charge—losing troops (and a battle) was great if it hurt the party.

And so Athens crashed. Hardly a surprise.

In fact, the people of Athens were dependent on each other, and no group could thrive if other groups lost battles. Us and Them thinking forgets that we are us.

At the time of the American Revolution, the British political situation was completely factionalized. We might like to admire Edmund Burke, who so eloquently defended the American colonies, but even I (an admirer of his) know that, had his party been in good with George III (they weren’t) he probably would have written just as eloquent an argument for crushing the American Revolution. The authors of the Constitution were also well aware of other historical examples that showed the fragility of republics, especially Venice (one of the longest lasting republics), Florence, and Rome.

And those were the conditions the authors of the Constitution tried to solve through the procedure of people voting for someone whose authority came from intelligence and judgment. That is, the constitution worked by having people vote, not for the President directly (since you couldn’t possibly know the President personally) but for someone you could know—a state legislator, an elector—whose judgment you could assess directly. But factions arose anyway.

The factions were somewhat different from those in either Athens or Britain. In Athens it was (more or less) the rich who wanted an oligarchy, or really a plutocracy, with the wealthy having more power than the poor, and with very little redistribution of wealth. On the other side were the non-leisured (not necessarily poor, but not very wealthy either) who wanted at least some redistribution of wealth and a lot of power-sharing. But an individual’s decision to join a particular faction was also influenced by family alliances and personal ambition. In Britain, factions were described as country versus city (wealth that came from land ownership versus industry and finance) which may or may not be accurate. As in Athens, there were other factors than just economics, and that city-country distinction might itself have been nothing more than good rhetoric to explain factions that weren’t really all that different from each other.

In the US, by the time of Andrew Jackson’s rise (the 1820s), there was some division along economic lines (agriculture vs. shipping, for instance), and some along ideological ones (Federalist vs. Antifederalist), but they didn’t give a very clean binary. There were more than two parties, and even the major parties were coalitions of people with nearly incompatible political agenda (Whigs and Democrats were both strong in the North and South, for instance). Given both the youth of the country and the large number of immigrants, there weren’t necessarily family traditions of having been in one faction or another, and there wasn’t some kind of regional distinction (the North was still predominantly agricultural, and some “Northern” states had slaves until the 1830s, so neither the agricultural/industrial nor slave/not slave distinctions provided any kind of mobilizing policy identity). There wasn’t the odd role that the monarchy played in British political factions (for years, one faction attached to the monarch, and another to the son whom the monarch hated). US factions were muckled and shapeshifting.

A disparate coalition is particularly given to intrafactional fighting, splitting, and purity wars, and so there is generally a strong desire to find what is usually called a “unification device.” The classic strategy to unify a profoundly disparate coalition is two-part: unification through finding a common enemy; cracking the other side’s coalition with a wedge issue. If a party is especially lucky, that two-part strategy is made available through one issue. And that’s what US parties did in the antebellum era, and, after trying various ones, they ended up on fear-mongering about abolitionism, with some anti-Catholicism thrown into the mix.

Antebellum media was extremely factionalized. Newspapers were simultaneously openly allied with a particular party, rabidly factional, and passionate in their condemnations of faction.

“The bitterness, the virulence, the vulgarity, and perfidy of factious warfare pervade every corner of our country;–the sanctity of the domestic hearth is still invaded;–the modesty of womanhood is still assailed…” (“Party” U.S. Telegraph, June 24, reprinted from the Sunday Morning News). The anti-Jackson Raleigh Register had the motto “Ours are the plans of fair delightful peace, unwarp’d by party rage, to live like brothers” but spent the spring and early summer of 1835 in vitriolic exchanges with the Jacksonian Standard. One letter in the exchange, for instance, begins, “The writhing, twisting and screwing–the protestation, subterfuge and unfairness and the lamentation, complaint and outcry displayed in this famous production” (Raleigh Register February 10, 1835). (From Fanatical Schemes).

For instance, a newspaper’s criticism of a political party inspired a member of that party to threaten a duel, and, once the various rituals had been enacted that enabled a duel to be avoided, the person who had threatened a duel over his political faction having been criticized said, “I regard the introduction of party politics as little less than absolute treason to the South.”

When, from about 2003 to 2009, I was working on a book about proslavery rhetoric, this characteristic—that people operating on purely factional motives condemned factionalism—was one of the characteristics that made me begin to worry about current US political discourse, since it was so true of what I was seeing in American media. The most passionately factional media have mottos like “Fair and Balanced.” I have an acquaintance who consumes nothing but the hyper-factionalized media, and he has several times told me I shouldn’t believe something not-that-media because it’s “biased.” Clearly, he doesn’t object to biased media, since that’s all he consumes. And then I noticed that’s a talking point in various ideological enclaves—you refuse to look at anything that disagrees with the information you’ve gotten from your entirely biased sources on the grounds that they are biased.

If you push them on that issue, I’ve found that consumers of that extremely factional media respond to criticisms of their factionalism (and bias) with “But the other faction does it too”—a response that only makes sense in which every question is “which faction is better” not “what behavior is right.” So, even their defense of their factionalism shows that, at the base, they think political discourse is a contest between factions, and not a place in which we should—regardless of faction—try to consider various policy options. They live and breathe within faction.

Andrew Jackson was tremendously successful in that world, partially because of his conscience-free use of the “spoils system”—in which all governmental and civil service positions were given to supporters. And Jackson didn’t particularly worry about his policies; one of his major “policy” goals was abolishing the National Bank. Scholars still argue about whether he had a coherent political or economic policy in regard to the bank; what is clear is that he didn’t articulate one, nor did his supporters. Hostility to the bank was what might be called a “mobilizing passion,” not a rationally-defended set of claims. But that passion was shared with many who had almost gut-level suspicions of big banks, monetary controls, and a strong Federal Government.

It was such a widely-shared view that Jackson’s destruction of the Bank, and its direct consequence, the Panic of 1837, couldn’t serve as a rallying point for his opposition. And Jackson’s combination of popularity, use of the spoils system (including his appointment of judges—one of whom is an ancestor of mine), and strong political party worried many reasonable people that he was trying to create a one-party state. So, even as his second term was ending, people were trying to figure out how to reduce his power, and yet they couldn’t use what was quite clearly unsound economic policies.

There were more opponents of Jackson than there were supporters, but to call them disparate is an understatement. Some were pro-Bank, but too many were anti-Bank for that issue to be useful. There were a large number of anti-Catholics (some of whom might have been Masons), and also a few anti-Masons. Jackson’s bellicose (albeit effective) handling of the Nullification Crisis had alienated many of the South Carolina politicians whom he had trounced, but their stance on the tariffs (which had catalyzed the Nullification Crisis—they were trying to  nullify tariffs) was incompatible with manufacturers in other areas.

Jacksonian Democrats played two (related) cards quite effectively—they played to racism about African Americans by supporting disenfranchisement of African-American voters and engaging in fear-mongering about free African Americans at the same time that openly embraced Irish-Catholic voters (whose right to vote was still an issue in some places). They thereby drove a wedge between two groups that might have allied (poor Irish and freed African Americans), essentially offering the gift of “whiteness” to the Irish for their political support (this story is elegantly and persuasively told in How the Irish Became White). Because politics naturally works by opposites, this made Catholicism an issue on which other parties had to take a stand, and they stood to lose large numbers of voters no matter which way they jumped. The only thing that the various anti-Jackson parties shared was that they were anti-Jackson, and it’s hard to raise a lot of ire against a white guy who does a good job of coming across as a regular guy who really cares about “normal” people. In rhetoric, that’s called “identification”—a rhetor persuades an audience that s/he and they share an identity, and persuades them that the shared identity is all the information the audience needs.[2]

Elsewhere I’ve argued that John Calhoun tried to use fear-mongering about abolitionists (who were a harmless fringe group at that point) in order to unify proslavery forces behind him. It’s a great kind of strategy—you find some kind of hobgoblin that is politically powerless but that frightens a politically powerful group, and you present yourself as the only one who can save them from that hobgoblin. Unfortunately for everyone, Calhoun’s opponents simply picked up his method and American politics began an alarmism race to see who could out-fearmonger the others and call for increasingly extreme (and irrational) gestures of loyalty to slavery. Eventually, those gestures (such as the Fugitive Slave Law, the “gag rule,” the attempt to expand slavery past the Mason-Dixon Line, and, finally, the Dred Scott decision) generated as much fear and anger about The Slave Power as proslavery rhetors were generating about abolitionists.

Reagan was much like Jackson, in that his economic policies were vague but seemed populist, and he persuaded people that he really cared about them and understood them. He was normal, and he wanted normal Americans to be at the center of America.

Trump’s situation is different in that he has never had very high approval outside of his faction, but the rabidly factionalized media ensures that he has a deliberately and wickedly misinformed faction who are willing to pivot quickly for a new posture on a political issue.

What makes the two people similar, and like Jackson, is just that they have far more opponents than they have allies, and a highly mobilized base. As long as the opposition remains internally factionalized, they win. But, at this point, all that is shared among Trump’s opponents is opposition to Trump. The impulse might be to try to do what Jackson’s opponents did, and find some issue about which to fear-monger, or to do what Reagan’s opponents did, and remain factionalized. Right now, we seem headed toward the second, and in a somewhat complicated (and genuinely well-intentioned) way.

The advice seems to be that we need to have a unified and coherent policy agenda in order to mobilize voters. And, while I agree that simply being anti-Trump isn’t enough, I don’t think the unified and coherent policy agenda strategy will work either, for several reasons. The first reason is that it is trying to solve the problem of faction through faction. The second (discussed much later) is that it grounded in a misunderstanding of how Americans vote.


III. Trying to solve the problems of factionalized politics by creating a more unified faction

[Most of this section was pulled out and posted separately here.]



  1. The mobilizing passion/policy argument

Speaking of reasonable arguments and thinking about probabilities, what are reasonable ways to go on from here and not repeat the errors of the past? The two most common arguments as to what we should do now are both, I’ll argue, reasonable. I’ll also argue that they’re probably wrong. But they aren’t obviously wrong, and I doubt they’re entirely wrong. One is that we’re losing elections because we aren’t putting forward a charismatic enough leader who inspires passionate commitment to a clear identity (what I always think of as “the Mondale problem”). The second is that the problem with the Dems in 2016 is that they didn’t have a sufficiently progressive platform of policies, and so there wasn’t a mobilizing political agenda. Therefore, we should have clearer mobilizing identity or political agenda.

I think these are reasonable arguments, but I don’t think either of them will work—I’m not sure they’re plausible (they certainly aren’t sufficient), and I’ll explain why in reverse order.

First, as to the “we just need someone with a clear progressive policy agenda,” I have to say that a lot of lefties who make that argument in my rhetorical world turn out to have no clue what policies Clinton advocated. They lived in a world of hating on Clinton throughout the election, and so remain actively misinformed about her policy agenda (and the number of them who shared links from fake news sites in October was really depressing).

A lot of lefties are political wonks, and so we assume that everyone else is equally motivated by policy issues. Unhappily, a lot of research suggests that isn’t the case. The next section relies heavily on three books: Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy (2002), Achen and Bartels’ Democracy for Realists (2017), and Parker and Barreto’s Change They Can’t Believe In (2014). I should say, before going through the research on the issue, that I’m not as hopeless about the prospects for more policy argumentation in American public discourse as I think these authors are, and I do think that improving our politics through improving our political discourse is the most sensible long-term plan. For the short-term, however, I think it makes sense to be pragmatic about how large numbers of people make decisions about voting, and they don’t do it on the basis of deep considerations of policy—or on the basis of policy at all.

John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse summarize their research: people care more about process than they do about policy, and they “think about process in relatively simple terms: the influence of special interests, the cushy lifestyle of members of Congress, the bickering and selling out on principles” (13). According to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, people believe that the right course of action on issues is obvious to people of goodwill and common sense who care about “normal” Americans: people believe that there is consensus as far as the big picture and that “a properly functioning government would just select the best way of bringing about these end goals without wasting time and needlessly exposing the people to politics” (133). Hibbing and Theiss-Morse refer to “people’s notion that any specific plan for achieving a desired goal is about as good as any other plan” (224).

A disturbing number of people believe that the correct course of action is obvious, because it looks obviously correct from their particular perspective. And I should emphasize that it isn’t just those stupid people who do it. Even lefties—even academic lefties—who emphasize the importance of perspective, teach about viewpoint epistemology, and reject naïve realism can regularly be heard at faculty meetings bemoaning the benighted administration for its obviously wrong-headed policy. In my experience, there is always a perspective from which the administration’s response is sensible. Most commonly, something that puts a great burden on my department (and my kind of department) is a policy that works tremendously well for most of the university, or for the parts of the university that the administration values more. Sometimes the bad policies are mandated by the state or federal government, or sometimes they are, I think, a misguided attempt to improve the budget situation. From my perspective, their policies look bad; from their perspective, my preferred policy looks bad.

I’m not saying that both policies are equally good, or all perspectives are equally valid, or that there is no way out of the apparent conundrum of a lot of people who all sincerely care for the university disagreeing as to what we should do. I’m saying that it’s a mistake for any of us to think that the correct course of action is obviously right to every reasonable person. I’m saying we really disagree, and that determining the best policy is complicated.

Most important, I’m saying that the tendency to dismiss disagreement and assume that complicated problems have simple solutions is widespread.

Since this depoliticizing of politics is widespread, how do people explain all the disagreement about policies? Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue that people believe that most politicians are self-interested, and bicker so much because they are submissive to the “special interests” that donate money to them: “The people would most prefer decisions to be made by what [Hibbing and Theiss-Morse] call empathetic, non-self-interested decision-makers” (86). They quote one of the participants in their research who “said he had voted for Ross Perot in 1996 because he felt Perot’s wealth would allow him to be relatively impervious to the money that special interests dangle in front of politicians” (123).

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse are persuasive on the profoundly anti-democratic way that people perceive “special interests.” They say, “Our claim is that the people see special interests as anybody with an interest. Since government is filled with people who have interests, the people naturally come to the conclusion that it is filled with special interests.” (226)

People use the term “special interest,” according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “to refer to anybody discussing an issue about which they do not care” (222).

We see ourselves as “normal” Americans, whose needs should be central to American policy, and whose problems should be solved quickly and sensibly. Were government functioning well, that’s what would happen, but it isn’t happening because the people in office put “special interests” above people like us, so we want someone who conveys compassion and care for us.[5]

That claim—that voters care more about caring and quick solutions to their problems and are neither interested in nor moved by policy deliberation—is supported by Achen and Bartels’ Democracy for Realists, which reviews years of studies in order to refute what they call the “folk theory of democracy.” That theory assumes that democracy is “rule by the people, democracy is unambiguously good, and the only possible cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy” (53).

Achen and Bartels conclude that elections don’t represent some kind of wisdom of the people, but “that election outcomes are mostly just erratic reflections of the current balance of partisan loyalties in a given political system” (16). Achen and Bartels argue that voters’ perceptions of policies—even basic facts—are largely determined by motivated reasoning (people use their powers of reason to rationalize a decision they have made for partisan reasons) or simply out of a desire “to kick the government,” even for natural disasters over which the government had no control (118). People aren’t motivated to join a party because they like the policies: “The primary sources of partisan loyalties and voting behavior, in our account, are social identities, group attachments, and myopic retrospections, not policy preferences or ideological principles” (267). By “myopic retrospections,” they mean events that happened in a very short period just before the election, for which they are punishing the incumbents.

Achen and Bartels refer to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, and other scholars, in their conclusion that “many citizens in well-functioning democracies” don’t understand the value of opposition parties and the necessary disagreement that comes with different points of view.

They dislike the compromises that result when many different groups are free to propose alternative policies, leaving politicians to adjust their differences. Voters want ‘a real leader, not a politician,’ by which they generally mean that their ideas should be adopted and other people’s opinions disregarded, because views different from their own are obviously self-interested and erroneous. (318)

There is a right way, in other words, and it’s the way that looks right to normal people, and it’s the one that should be followed.

Michele Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men (2000) emphasizes that many men (especially white) gain dignity from seeing themselves as disciplined, and explain their success as completely their own individual achievement—they actively resent goods (such as support of various kinds) being given to people who don’t work (see especially 132-135; this was less true of African Americans whom Lamont interviewed, who tended to emphasize the “caring” self). And, especially for white men, wealth isn’t necessarily good or bad; they don’t necessarily resent people who are more wealthy, but they do resent people with higher status who look down on them (108-109). They want to feel respected and cared about (which may explain Trump’s success with precisely the kind of voter whom many people thought would resent his problematic record with small businesses).

What all of this means is that thinking that the issue for the Dems in 2016, or the issue at the state and Congressional level, is that we haven’t articulated a compelling and thorough policy argument is almost certainly wrong. People who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump weren’t drawn by his policies, but his identity. As Achen and Bartels remind us, voters often get wrong the policies of their favorite political figures or their own party. And voters are easily maneuvered by mild shifts in wording (asking people about ACA versus asking them about Obamacare, for instance). Large numbers of voters don’t care about policies.

They care about slogans—they care about being told that the party or politician cares about them, and will throw out the bastards, drain the swamp, clean house. Large numbers of people want to be reassured that their needs and desires for themselves are the only ones that matter and will be the first priority of the party/rhetor.

And a lot of voters vote on the basis of promises the candidate can’t possibly fulfill. This isn’t just something that their ignorant supporters do. Certainly, Trump promised to do things the President can’t do without thoroughly violating the Constitution (since he was proposing to dictate Congressional and judicial policies–but both Sanders and Clinton proposed policies there was no reason to think they could get through a GOP Congress. I’m repeatedly surprised at the reactions of large numbers of people to SCOTUS decisions–many people (including smart and sensible friends) don’t seem to understand that it isn’t the job of SCOTUS to make sure that laws are “just”–it’s their job to make sure they’re constitutional.

In the early spring of 2016, I was in a hotel in Louisiana eating the fairly crummy free breakfast, and two men behind me were discussing Trump (they liked him). When they talked about how he was going to do something about all those poor people who lived off of the government, one of them said, “Well, what are you going to do? You can’t kill ‘em.” Then they got onto the subject of his plan for ISIS. One of them said, “They’re complaining that he won’t say what his plan is. But of course he can’t say what it is.” The other said, “Right, then ISIS would know it!” Trump’s promise was to develop a plan to crush and destroy ISIS within 30 days of taking office. His plan, as it turned out, was to tell the Pentagon to come up with a plan—as though that had never occurred to Obama?

What they needed was to believe he was the kind of person who could solve problems. He told them political issues are simple, and he was a straightforward person who, like Perot, couldn’t be bought—he wouldn’t genuinely represent them and their interests. And now he is saying that it turns out every single issue is complicated.

I often wonder about those two guys, and what they make of all this. If research on people drawn to simple solutions is accurate, then they’re doing one of three things: 1) rewriting history, so that they never voted for him on the grounds that he could solve things quickly and easily; 2) making an exception for his finding things complicated, and using his new admission that he was entirely and completely wrong in everything he said about politics as additional evidence of his “authenticity” and sincerity (and, since all they care about is that he sincerely cares about them, they’re good); 3) regretting voting for him, but not rethinking why they voted for him, what their assumptions were about how to think about politics.

That’s what happened with the Iraq invasion, after all. People who had supported it denied they’d ever supported it, denied it was a mistake, or blamed Bush for lying to them. They didn’t decide that their process of making a decision about the war was a mistake—they didn’t stop watching the channels that had worked them into a frenzy about Saddam Hussein’s (non) participation in 9/11 or the (non)existence of weapons of mass destruction. They didn’t stop making political decisions on the basis of hating Dems, or trusting a political figure because he seemed like someone who cared about them.

So, no, we can’t reach that sort of person with a more populist political agenda because it isn’t about the political agenda.

I think it’s also a mistake to think that, since they’re engaged in demagoguery, and it’s winning elections for them, that’s what we should do. Demagoguery, a way of approaching public discourse that makes all political issues a question of us (angels) versus them (devils) works for reactionary politics because reactionary politics is attractive to “people who fear change of any kind—especially if it threaten to undermine their way of life” (Parker and Barreto 6). Reactionary politics, according to Parker and Barreto and also Michael Mann, arises when a group is losing privileges (such as whites losing the privilege of being able to see their group as inherently superior to non-whites). Democrats played that card for years, and it worked, but now it would alienate as many people as it would win (or more). The research on “moral foundations” is pretty clear that, while loyalty to the ingroup is important for people who self-identify as conservative, fairness across groups is important for people who tend to self-identify as liberal. Any rhetoric that says “this group is entitled to more than any other group” will alienate potential liberal voters.

While there is a lot of lefty demagoguery, it’s internally alienating. That is, the presence of internal demagoguery is what makes some people very hesitant to support the Democratic Party. And now we’re back to the two narratives of 2016—both are demagoguery, and both alienate people. We need to imagine a way to move forward that doesn’t involve any one kind of lefty becoming the only legitimate lefty.

And demagoguery won’t get us there.

And that brings us to the second option: find a charismatic leader. That’s a great idea, and we should always hope that our candidates can come across as people who really care about “normal” people (with, I would hope, a broader version of “normal” than reactionary politicians present), but 1) that is only an option if there is a deep bench of Democratic governors and Senators, and 2) that still doesn’t get a reasonable balance in Congress, state legislatures, or among governors.

So, what went wrong in 2016? We had a shallow bench. There are lots of reasons for progressives’ poor showing at the state and Congressional level—low progressive voter turnout in 2010 that enabled gerrymandering, a tendency for progressive voters only to come out for the Presidency, and various other complicated things (including the success of factionalized hate media). What won’t work is something I hear a lot of progressives say: “We just need to run more progressives.” People have been saying that for a long time, and trying it for a long time, and sometimes running progressives works and sometimes it doesn’t, so there is no “just” about it.

The first thing lefty voters need to do is get out the vote at the state level. And I think we need to be very clear that we care about all kinds of voters, and lefty rhetoric about hillbillies and toothless white guys doesn’t help, so we also need to shut down classism as fast as we shut down any other kind of bigotry.

And we can’t win within the parameters of demagoguery, so we need to stop trying to play within them.


  1. On the Democratic Party as a strategic coalition

At the beginning, I talked about my initial perception of politics as a contest between what is obviously the right course of action and various things that other people want—because they’re selfish, wrong-headed, corrupt, misguided. Compromise made a good thing worse because it was a question of how much bad had to be accepted in order to get some good done, and it should only be done for Machiavellian purposes. I think too many lefties operate within that model.

When the refusal to compromise goes wrong, it ends up landing people in purity wars, and those are never good for people who are trying argue in favor of diversity and fairness. Purity wars can work well for authoritarians, racists, and people with what social psychologists call a “social dominance orientation,” but they don’t work well for the left.

So, simply refusing to compromise isn’t going to ensure better policies; it can ensure worse ones if, as happened under Reagan (or in Weimar Germany in 1932), the refusal to compromise means that the left is entirely excluded. Saying that refusing to compromise can be harmful isn’t to say that all compromises are good. I’m saying compromise isn’t necessarily and always good, but neither is it necessarily and always wrong. I’m saying that we should stop assuming it’s always evil, and we should stop falsely narrating effective lefty leaders as people who refused to compromise—they compromised. In fact, every effective leader on the left was excoriated in their time for having compromised too much.

The refusal to compromise comes from thinking about politics as a negotiating between right and wrong. We might instead think of politics 1) as the consequence of deliberation, not bargaining, 2) as an acknowledgement of the limitations of our own perspective, and/or 3) as a sharing of power with those people who share our goals. I think lefties would do well to think of at least some compromises as coming out of one of those three factors.

Here’s what I now think: thinking about compromise as always and necessarily wrong is bad, but neither is every compromise right. There are times when you say there is some shit you will not eat, and I am known as a difficult woman because I have refused to go along with various motions, statements, policies, and actions. I have nailed more than a few theses to a door. But I think lefties’ failure to think about compromise as anything other than distasteful realpolitik comes from, oddly enough, a less than useful way of thinking about diversity.

I think too often lefties accept the normal political discourse of thinking in terms of identity (even though we, of all people, should understand that intersectionality means that there aren’t necessary connections between a person and their politics), so we imagine that we have achieved diversity when we have a party that looks diverse—as though that’s all the diversity we need. So, we aspire to a political party that is diverse in terms of identity and univocal in terms of policy agenda. And I don’t think that’s going to work.

Instead of striving for a group that is univocal in terms of policy but diverse in terms of bodies, we need to imagine a party that is diverse in terms of what the Quakers call “concern.”

Early in the history of the Society of Friends, meetings struggled with what we would now recognize as burnout—people at meetings would speak of the need for everyone to be concerned about this and that issue, and everyone couldn’t be concerned about everything. So, there arose the notion that the Light makes itself known in different people in different ways, and that each person has a concern which is not shared with everyone. I think that’s what we on the left should do—we should be people concerned with inclusion, fairness, and reparative justice, and who are open to different visions of how those goals might manifest in moments of concern (and policy).

There are, of course, problems with calling for more diversity of ideology on the Left, including that it means cooperating with people whose views we think wrong. And so we have to figure out how much wrong we’re willing to allow. LBJ allowed Great Society money to go to corrupt Democratic machines, believing it was a necessary first step; Margaret Sanger cooperated with eugenicists, since it got her money and support; FDR compromised with segregationists in regard to the US military; Lincoln was willing to talk like a colonizationist to get elected and compromised with racists about pay for black troops. I don’t think they should have made those compromises.

There are some compromises that shouldn’t be made, and so we shouldn’t—but we should argue about what those limits are. And there may be times that we decide to compromise on purely Machiavellian grounds; I’m not ruling that out. But I am saying that lefties shouldn’t treat every disagreement as something that must be resolved with pure agreement on the outcome—that’s just a fear of difference. Lefties disagree. We really, really, really disagree. Lefties need to imagine that disagreement is useful, productive, and doesn’t always need to be resolved. We need to imagine a politics in which each of us gets something important for our well-being and none of us gets everything. And we need to stop hoping and working for a party of purity.




[1] If it helps one side too much, of course, then both end up losing—if interest rates are too high, no one takes out loans, and then lenders are hurt; or high interest rates might tank the economy, which can make it hard for lenders to find money to loan.

[2] It’s generally done through division—you and I are alike because we both hate them. Salespeople will often do it on big ticket sales, and con artists always use it.

[3] One sign of how factionalized a situation is is how often when I’m talking about this I have to keep saying that not all Sanders supporters are Sandersistas and not all Clinton supporters are Clintonistas. As scholars of group identity say, the more that membership in a group is important to you, the more that any criticism of any member of that group will feel like a personal attack.

[4] One of the odder arguments I sometimes hear people make is that Clinton was at fault for not motivating them—it’s the Presidency, not a hamburger; you’re responsible for making choices, and not a passive consumer of marketing. (Talk about a neoliberal model of democracy.) That argument irritates me so much I won’t even list it as a reason.

[5] While Hibbing and Theiss-Morse maintain this is not authoritarianism, because people want a direct connection to the halls of power when the government is not being appropriately responsive, I would argue that neither is it democratic (little d) in that there is no value given to deliberation or difference. And, of course, it’s how authoritarian governments arise—people give over all their power of deliberation to someone who will do it for them. When they want it back, they can’t always have it.

Privilege and perspective-shifting

It’s interesting that there is such resistance to the notion of privilege. Every human knows that privilege is a thing. I grew up in a very wealthy area, and we all knew whose parents could pull strings, get their kid a part-time job from which s/he couldn’t be fired, intimidate the principal, get rules bent. Let’s call that kid That Guy (although he wasn’t always a guy). People who grew up around rich people (even if they were rich) should be the first to acknowledge the power of privilege, since they must have had direct experience of it, but often they’re the last. And it isn’t because they secretly put hoods on at night and attend white supremacist marches.

I think there are several reasons: the stories that privileged people tell themselves about That Guy, a tendency to think in binaries, a commitment to naïve realism (and the often-connected notion that good people have good judgment), imagining self-worth and achievement in a zero-sum relation, and the impulse to hear “check your privilege” as something other than “time to listen.”

As to the first, That Guy got away with everything–he was completely tanked, totaled his car, and yet didn’t get arrested—and that obviously doesn’t apply to us. He never earned anything, and never faced consequences. And he was an asshole. People hear the observation of privilege as an accusation that we are That Guy. People think they’re being called an asshole. Self-identity is comparative—rich people can feel “poor” if they hang out with richer people, attractive people can feel unattractive, and so on. As long as there is someone with more privilege than what we have, then we can feel that we aren’t That Guy, and therefore, don’t have privilege (or none worth considering).

That impulse to consider our privilege trivial because of how it compares to someone else is connected to the tendency to think in binaries, especially a binary central to American political discourse: makers or takers (producers or parasites). You either work hard and make/produce wealth, or else you are a lazy person who takes from those who make wealth. William Jennings Bryan’s rhetoric described bankers (and people in the city) as parasitical on the real wealth production of the farmers; Father Coughlin positioned “international finance” (his dog whistle for “Jews”) as against the real producers of wealth; Paul Ryan and current toxic populist rhetoric makes public servants and anyone on assistance (unless they are Republican) as takers, with the top 1% as the makers.

People who think that you are either a maker or a taker can point to the ways they make wealth and therefore are enraged at being accused of being a taker. That Guy is a taker, but we aren’t him, so we are makers. The mistake here is the maker/taker binary. Privilege has nothing to do with whether you’re a maker or a taker, and it isn’t an accusation of anything. It certainly isn’t an accusation that the person hasn’t worked at all, nor is it an accusation of being an asshole.

The maker/taker binary is attractive because of the dominance in American culture of the “just world model” (or “just world hypothesis”): the notion that good people get good things and bad people get bad things. That model means that we can reason backwards from outcomes to identities: a person has good outcomes (makes a lot of money, is healthy, is successful) has caused those outcomes to happen by their good choices, good faith, and good identity; a person who has bad outcomes (is financially struggling, unhealthy, unsuccessful, or has been the object of crime) has caused those outcomes through their poor choices, bad attitude, or lack of faith.

To tell someone that outcomes might be influenced by conditions outside a person’s choice (such as accidents of birth) is tremendously threatening to someone who believes strongly in the just world model. It threatens their sense of justice and belief in a controllable universe. And research suggests that being faced with uncertainty means that people will resort more firmly to their sense that their group is inherently good, so a privileged person, faced with evidence that the world is unjust, is likely to want to cling more fiercely to the notion that they are part of a good group.

And, if that person has a tendency to think in binaries then to say that outcomes might be influenced by conditions of privilege will be heard as saying that outcomes are purely the consequence of privilege—no choices involved. Thinking in binaries means that a person will tend to believe “monocausal” narratives (any outcome has one and only one cause). If the milk spilled, there was one action that caused it, and we can argue about whether it was yours or mine, but it can’t have been both, let alone the consequence of various factors.[1] So, privilege either determines everything or nothing; if a person who believes in monocausal narratives can find a single thing done by agency, then their life wasn’t purely the consequence of privilege, and therefore it wasn’t at all. For someone like that, individual agency is the single cause or has no impact at all.

When people ask that we consider privilege, it isn’t substituting one monocausal narrative (everything I have achieved is purely the consequence of things I have done) with another (everything you have achieved is purely the consequence of your privilege). It’s an observation about relative advantages. A person raised speaking a language has an advantage over someone who had to learn the language as an adult. Because of our tendency to assume that fluency with language necessarily means fluency of thought, we tend to think of people who come across as native speakers as more intelligent. So, a person who learned a language as an adult has to work harder than the native speaker to get taken seriously and be heard. That isn’t to say that the native speaker didn’t work at all—it isn’t a binary. It’s about relative advantage or disadvantage.

John Scalzi has an article I like a lot for explaining privilege, and it’s interesting to see how people in the comments misunderstand his point. His argument is that being a straight white male is like rolling high in the character-establishing point in a role-playing game. You have an advantage over someone else who rolled low, in every situation, all other things being equal.

What that means is that a person who has no disabilities and grows up in a wealthy family in a stable environment and is a straight white male necessarily has advantages over a gay black female in exactly the same situation. That’s a comparison that keeps everything other than gender, sexuality, and race the same. But a large number of the critical comments changed other variables, insisting that Scalzi was wrong because a rich (variable of wealth) gay black female would have advantages over a poor (changed variable of wealth) het white male.

That’s clearly not engaging Scalzi’s argument.

He says “all other things being equal” and a large number of examples ignore that part of his argument. And, really, the two of the three most common ways I see arguments about privilege go wrong is that they introduce other variables (especially class) or they think the observation of privilege is a claim that the privileged person has done nothing at all (the maker/taker binary).

Since so much cultural and political discourse has the maker/taker binary, it’s understandable that people would force the observation about relative advantage into the maker/taker binary, but let’s be clear: that’s a misunderstanding that’s on the hearer. Saying you have privilege isn’t saying you’re That Guy. It’s saying that, in this situation, you have relative advantage.

One of my favorite studies is one you can do in any classroom. Ask students to write the letter ‘E’ on a small piece of paper in such a way that, when they put it on their forehead, it will be correct for someone looking at them. In one version of this study, half the group was given a small amount of money, and they promptly did worse on being able to imagine the perspective of anyone else. Thus, giving relatively small signals of privilege to some students can make perspective-shifting harder for them.

That task, perspective-shifting, is crucial to democracy. Communities in which people only look out for their group (or for themselves) inevitably end up in highly-factional squabbling, in which people will cheerfully hurt the overall community just in order to make sure the other side doesn’t win. Democracies thrive when everyone involved believes that our best world is the best world for people whom we dislike. Democracy depends on people looking at more than what is best for them or their group to whether we are establishing processes by which we’re willing to live. And that requires not just looking at whether this policy benefits me, as the person I am, but whether I would believe it was a good policy were I a completely different kind of person.

Privilege makes perspective-shifting less necessary, and makes it easier for us to think of our perspective as the “normal” one. If we are naïve realists (that is, if we believe that reality is absolutely apparent to us and we just have to ask ourselves if something is true in order to determine it is) then we are likely to think there is never any other perspective, or, if there is, that there is never any benefit to looking at things from that perspective since our perspective is right.

And our perspective is likely to be that we worked hard for what we have, that we earned every inch of our way, so it is likely to seem ridiculous to have someone say that we have privilege.

It’s a natural human tendency to attribute our successes to our work (and worth) and our failures to externalities. Even That Guy thinks he worked hard, and so doesn’t recognize his own privilege. Privilege isn’t a binary—it’s on a continuum; it isn’t an accusation of being a worthless taker, but an observation about relative advantage. It shouldn’t be the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one.






[1] It’s striking to me that people who tend toward monocausal narratives also tend to think of cause purely in terms of blame, but they aren’t the same. Perhaps, just as I was getting a glass of milk my husband requested, I was startled by the mayor having chosen to sound the tornado siren. The causes of the spilled milk might include my having an active startle reflex, the tornado, the mayor, my husband requesting a glass of milk, my decision to get him one while I’m up, perhaps whatever it is (genetics? experience?) that caused my startle reflex, but none of those factors is one it makes any sense to blame.