Why Trump Persists

The failure of the American electorate to rise up in opposition to President Trump — whose outrages are well-documented — suggests that voters are less tolerant, less empathetic and less insistent on integrity than many believe.

The election of Trump and his first three years in office have revealed a nation deeply ambivalent about immigration, race, equality, fairness — even about the ground rules of democracy itself.

What if the belief systems used to justify anti-immigrant policies and to justify race prejudice, for that matter — hostility to outsiders, insularity, high sensitivity to external threat — are as deeply ingrained in the American body politic as belief systems sympathetic to immigration and to racial equality — openness, receptivity to new experiences, trust?

Karen Stenner, a political psychologist and behavioral economist best known for “predicting the rise of Trump-like figures under the kinds of conditions we now confront,” responded to my emailed inquiries by noting the conflicting pressures at play:

I don’t think I would agree that Trumpian conservative stands on immigration, race and homelessness are a more “natural” or “default” position. Communities with a good balance of people who seek out diversity, complexity, novelty, new and exciting experiences etc., and those who are disgusted by and averse to such things, avoid them, and tell others to do likewise, tend to thrive and prosper in human evolution.

Finding the right balance, Stenner said, “is vital to both societal cohesion and human flourishing.” But, she warned, “we may have tipped the balance too far in favor of unconstrained diversity and complexity,” pushing the boundary beyond “many people’s capacity to tolerate it.”

At this juncture, she argued, we

need to tinker with that balance and get it right for everyone. So there’s the paradox of our times: it is likely that rather less liberal democracy will ultimately make liberal democracy more secure.

Among liberals, Stenner argued, the greatest ambivalence “attaches to immigration issues,” and that ambivalence is only worsened by the unwillingness of liberals to accept an open debate in which immigration opponents can “express their fears and concerns, without being called racists.”

Suzette Brooks Masters — who has written extensively about immigrant integration, detention, employment-based immigration and the immigrants’ rights field generally — made a parallel point in her recent study of immigration, “Change is Hard”:

Academics agree that it is the pace of change relative to the composition of the receiving community that matters most. Simply put, if a place is already quite diverse, making it more diverse matters less. Even significant inflows of diverse newcomers will be perceived as less threatening because the community has already adapted to greater diversity. By contrast, in a relatively homogeneous location, even small absolute numbers of newcomers, such as refugees, can be disruptive and activate cultural anxiety.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, offered a similarly nuanced examination of the how the balance between tribalism and openness might play out. Tribalism, he wrote by email,

is not a mindless and eternal “us versus them” mentality. It is a set of psychological adaptations that make people respond to threats and intergroup competition with an urge to band together, enforce loyalty to the team, and guard boundaries or territory.

In the political arena, Haidt continued,

if one gains prestige for outdoing others on one’s devotion to sacred values — such as guarding America’s borders, on the right, or being antiracist on the left — then the party’s rhetoric will shift to the extremes, with candidates making more extreme proposals that gain them prestige.

The pressures to go to extremes, Haidt suggested, are “roughly symmetrical between left and right.”

John R. Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, takes a more uncompromising stance. In an email, he wrote:

Though consideration of such matters is always speculative, suggesting the possibility that conservative orientations, particularly on topics such as immigration and race, are evolutionarily more primal is perfectly reasonable.

In their book “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences,” Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, of the University of Nebraska, and John R. Alford, of Rice, argue that liberalism is “an evolutionary luxury” that can emerge in people when “negative stimuli becoming less prevalent and less deadly,” or, as Hibbing put it in an email, “when daily threats to life and limb posed by other human beings have diminished.”

Conversely, they write, if the environment shifts back to a “threat-filled atmosphere,” then “positive selection for conservative orientations would reappear.”

Let’s take a look at one of the core divisions between liberals and conservatives: the causes of poverty. The right tends to blame individual failings while the left tends to place the onus on economic and political forces. The accompanying chart, created from 2019 Voter Study Group data by Zach Goldberg, a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgia State, shows the difference.

Why Are Some Americans Poor?

What self-identified liberals, moderates and conservatives said contributes to poverty in America. Percentage answering “extremely/very important” for each of the following.

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The poor face discrimination

The country’s economic system is unfair

They have just had bad luck

They don’t have the right talents or abilities

They do not work hard enough

They don’t spend their money responsibly


The poor face discrimination

The country’s economic

system is unfair

They have just had bad luck

They don’t have the right

talents or abilities

They do not work hard enough

They don’t spend their

money responsibly

By The New York Times | Source: analysis of 2019 Voter Study Group survey data by Zach Goldberg, Georgia State University

Linda J. Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and four colleagues conducted an intriguing set of tests to determine the durability and strength of liberal and conservative beliefs on poverty in a 2002 paper, “Dispositions, Scripts, or Motivated Correction? Understanding Ideological Differences in Explanations for Social Problems.”

They found that in troubled times, when competition for limited goods intensifies, liberals move to the right:

It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal. Liberals act like conservatives when resources are scarce, cognitive load is high, and aid serves secondary rather than primary needs. Conservatives only act like liberals when they are asked to consider helping a person with internally controllable causes of need who has convincingly reformed.

In an email, Skitka provided some reasons for this difference:

My research has found that holding people responsible for their plight is a more natural response than feeling sympathetic to those in need. Under most conditions, liberals are more sympathetic to the needy in large part because they are more likely to attribute the causes of their need to something about the situation. Conservatives, in contrast, tend to attribute the causes of people’s need to something about the needy person: They don’t work hard enough, etc.

Because blaming the individual is a default or fallback position, liberals have to go through a “more cognitively effortful” process to reach their less “natural” conclusion — “people have to basically override a more natural inclination to make dispositional attributions instead,” according to Skitka.

As a result, she continued, under certain pressures,

liberals respond to the needy more like conservatives when resources are scarce or when they are under a lot of cognitive load (e.g., they are distracted), or their ability to engage in self-control is reduced (e.g., when under the influence of alcohol).

The left-right differences over the causes of poverty apply to other controversial subjects highly salient in contemporary American politics, Skitka and her colleagues write:

Liberals tend to focus on situational or institutional explanations for things like homelessness or why people commit crimes, whereas conservatives tend to focus on personal explanations for the same phenomena.

Skitka and her fellow authors received strong support for their argument in a 2012 paper, “Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” by Scott Eidelman, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and three co-authors.

Skitka and her colleagues conducted a series of tests comparing the answers of two groups to ideologically revealing questions. The first faced time pressure or were forced to answer with distracting background noises, in environments “taxing, limiting or otherwise disengaging effortful, deliberative thought.” The second group was asked the same questions with plenty of time to think and without noise or other distractions.

In each case, those tested under favorable circumstances provided more liberal answers than those tested under more hostile conditions. The adverse conditions forced those participants to perform what the authors called “low-effort thinking,” and the results showed that “low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism.”

In one of their four experiments, the authors went to an unidentified bar in New England and persuaded 85 drinkers to take the test and have their alcohol levels measured. The results:

Bar patrons reported more conservative attitudes as their level of alcohol intoxication increased. Because alcohol limits cognitive capacity and disrupts controlled responding, while leaving automatic thinking largely intact, these data are consistent with our claim that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism.

Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that one effect of increasing education levels is to fundamentally change individual world views. “The one sense in which there is evidence that we do ‘overcome’ our tendencies toward tribalism is through education,” she wrote by email.

“Every study I’ve ever seen across the social sciences shows that education promotes less in-group favoritism and greater tolerance toward those unlike ourselves,” she continued. “In panel studies that track the same people over time, as people gain advanced levels of education, they become more tolerant and favorable toward liberal democratic norms.”

One scholar who has devoted much of his career to the study of the transition in developed countries from materialist to post-materialist values — from a value orientation that emphasizes economic and physical security to one that emphasizes self-expression and quality of life — is Ronald Inglehart, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He sees a generalized transition to more liberal world views — perhaps as a concomitant of voters with college and graduate school degrees.

“Liberal values are not a veneer, masking a much less pleasant reality,” Inglehart pointed out in an email. “A sizable and growing segment” of the American public, he wrote, “has tolerant liberal views and these views are deep-rooted and enduring.”

Inglehart’s research has found

that those who developed postmaterialist values (which strongly correlate with what you think of as “liberal” values) in their pre-adult years, remained relatively postmaterialist 40 years later.

Materialists and postmaterialists take opposing sides in response to these statements:

A woman has to/doesn’t have to have children to be fulfilled; I would/wouldn’t want foreigners, homosexuals or people with AIDS as neighbors; A child needs/does not need a home with both a father and a mother in order to grow up happily; Imagination is/is not one of the most important things to teach a child; Men do/don’t make better political leaders than women; Homosexuality is/is never justifiable.

From 1970 to the present, the ratio of materialists to postmaterialists has gone from 4-1 to 1-1, according to Inglehart.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard whose research has demonstrated the precariousness of liberal racial commitments when tested in real world circumstances, replied by email to my inquiries:

There is no doubt that there is more ambivalence on these issues among liberals and moderates than is reflected in the polls.

In addition to the pressures of “social desirability bias” to give the liberal answer, Enos wrote,

others will lie to themselves, telling themselves they believe something that they really don’t; and others are liberal in theory, but less so in practice when it comes to things like homelessness in their own city or neighborhood.

There are other sources of internal tension and conflicting interests among Democrats and liberals.

I have written frequently on the problems confronting the “upstairs-downstairs” Democratic coalition — combining well-educated, relatively affluent voters who are disproportionately white with poor and working class voters who are heavily minority.

In his book, “Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change,” and in an Atlantic article, Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts, has focused on the relatively weaker commitments of the upscale constituency of the Democratic coalition to policy initiatives aimed at providing substantive help.

Many college-educated people “think they are deeply engaged in politics,” Hersh wrote in the Atlantic:

They follow the news — reading articles like this one — and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate.

In fact, he argues, their consumption of political information is

a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.

Hersh is hard on these voters, a group he describes as “college-educated white people, a demographic group that is now predominately Democratic.”

These voters, he writes,

do politics as hobbyists because they can. On the political left, they may say they fear President Donald Trump. They may lament polarization. But they are pretty comfortable with the status quo.

They do not

feel a sense of obligation, of “linked fate,” to people who have concrete needs such that they are willing to be their allies. They might front as allies on social media, but very few white liberals are actively engaging in face-to-face political organizations, committing their time to fighting for racial equality or any other issue they say they care about.

Why does all this matter? What difference does it make if liberals and Democrats are more ambivalent than conservatives and Republicans?

For one thing, it means that in elections that are increasingly negative, ambivalent partisans — Democrats in this case — will be more vulnerable to attacks designed to generate conflict, to weaken enthusiasm and to increase the likelihood of nonvoting. President Trump and the proponents of the Republican Party he dominates are certain to do all they can to capitalize on this vulnerability.

Most importantly, Democratic ambivalence, in a year when high turnout is mandatory, reflects the larger problem facing a political party that is now focused on its shared animosity to Trump. That animosity may or may not be enough to propel its presidential candidate to victory, but the inherent tension between different sectors of the center-left coalition over ideological, economic and social issues — not to mention glaring levels of intraparty income inequality — calls into question exactly what common ground holds the Democratic coalition together. How common is it?

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