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To My Undergraduate Class on the 2016 Election

Although I was initially reluctant to talk about election results, the election of Donald Trump was unusual enough that I felt obligated to explain its significance to my class. This essay expands upon what I said to my 300-level undergraduate class “The Sociology of Happiness.” I have published it here because it may be useful to others in the academic community, particular those who teach students of a variety of nationalities, a fairly common situation at private universities in the U.S., and those who teach students who uniformly adhere to one political ideology.

I’ve been mulling over whether to talk about the election in class. Because we have so much material to cover already, I decided not to do that, but given many responses to last week’s assignment on negative cognitive distortions, I also realized that the results of this election matter to your happiness. Here are a few points that may help you make sense of the election, especially if you have traveled internationally or plan to live outside the U.S. My first goal is to explain the ways in which America resembles other countries in terms of its political diversity and why such diversity arises. My second goal is to explain why the current American political scene is unique, which may help you make sense of the election of an extremist candidate like Donald Trump.

Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians

Political ideologies are driven by different fears and different stories. Liberals are afraid that people at the bottom of society or the margins of society will be oppressed. Conservatives are afraid that people will detach themselves from nationalistic and religious obligations that prevent society from descending into chaos. They would prefer to have a society that is aligned with traditional and divine edicts. Libertarians are afraid that people who are vested with authority will abuse it, inhibiting the efficiency and economic growth that arise when individuals have freedom.

Many researchers have attempted to explain this diversity, and one cogent theory posits six moral foundations: harm, fairness, national loyalty, sanctity, hierarchy, and liberty. Everyone cares about these foundations, but for conservatives, concerns about sanctity, hierarchy, and loyalty are just as important as concerns about fairness and harm, whereas for liberals, fairness and harm are most important. Libertarians primarily value personal liberty.

These distinctions matter because they can be partially traced to heritable differences between people. Other factors matter too, of course, and cultures vary — conservatives in India and China are not interchangeable. But heritability indicates that globally, most people will be somewhere in the ideological middle, but some will be markedly liberal, conservative, or libertarian. If you fail to appreciate the foundations of these differences, people will seem crazy, stupid, ignorant, or immoral. This talk by Jonathan Haidt explains moral variability further:

Appreciating political variation may also help you understand politics in whichever you country you spend your adult life. If you live in a two-party country, you will likely find a split between a liberal party and a conservative party. In the U.S., libertarians tend toward conservatism because libertarians believe that people should be rewarded in proportion to their economic contributions, and conservatives, in proportion to virtue. Hence, both tolerate inequality. In European nations, you may find liberals and libertarians clustering together because they both reject authoritarianism and religious orthodoxy. If you live in a multi-party nation, you’ll find more segmentation — a conservative party may be nationalistic or religious; and it may be very conservative or just slightly conservative. Nevertheless parties will fit into a similar ideological map.

Global Polarization and American Polarization

Despite these general trends, there are two unique things about the current era. First, many nations have undergone polarization. One consequence is that people have sorted into ideological tribes based on which political party they support, and these tribes have mutual disdain. Nevertheless, polarization does not itself cause problems when politicians are willing to compromise. Ultimately, parties need to be responsive to voters, and politicians are inclined to compromise as a result.

Yet compromises require mutual respect, and here the U.S. along with a couple of other nations have a unique problem. In the U.S., political-science research shows asymmetric polarization. The Republican party has become a radical party that has discarded the idea of respecting the opposition. Politicians have never been saints, but they have historically respected traditional norms of how to govern. Even though these norms are absent from the Constitution they have enabled cross-party compromises. Conservatives have usually been more respectful of these norms.

At the national level, the Republican Party, thanks in part to Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich began to discard these norms about two decades ago, which is around the time you were born. (Some of this has trickled down to the state level and lower, but it’s more difficult to generalize at that level.) Describing this change, two veteran political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have written this frequently quoted summation: “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition” [italics mine]. Here’s a summary of Ornstein and Mann’s book, and here’s a lecture by Ornstein on this topic:

Some people disagree with this assessment, and you can find Ornstein debating an opponent here:

I agree with Ornstein’s assessment. The Democratic Party has done some problematic things, but it hasn’t discarded norms to the same degree, and it has respected the legitimacy of the Republican party, evident in the greater willingness of Democrats to compromise with George W. Bush than of Republicans to compromise with Barack Obama. Because of this radicalization, Democrats cannot be responsive to voters when they are elected to govern. According to the new logic of the Republican party, Democratic politicians should be voted out if they accomplish nothing. So for electoral victories, it pays to ensure that Democratic politicians accomplish nothing, because voters then become angered about the lack of governmental responsiveness, and elect Republicans instead.

This politics of rage has produced more radical presidential candidates among Republicans, culminating in Donald Trump. Washington Post commentator E. J. Dionne traces that trajectory in a recent book summarized in this short video:

False equivalence is the term for the common practice of blaming Republicans and Democrats equally for political dysfunction. You may recall that equality and proportionality are two different modes of interaction. The false-equivalence narrative is based on equality; according to this narrative, blame must always be distributed evenly — Republicans and Democrats must therefore share responsibility for government dysfunction. This narrative pervades media reports and it holds sway among many knowledgeable people. Most of these people have decided in advance that equality is the correct “unbiased” framework, so facts do not dissuade them. Incidentally, a similar allegiance to equality can be found when people discuss rewards or punishments across ethnicities or genders; some people decide in advance that equality rather than proportionality is the correct framework, so they are rarely persuaded by proportionality-based arguments about why one gender or one ethnic group is over-represented in some outcome. Equality is not a sensible baseline in a proportional system.

The issue of false equivalence may seem tangential, but I mention it because the pull of that narrative is strong, and because Democratic retaliation can be mis-represented. Also, some people will persistently accuse of you of bias if you don’t fall in line with that narrative.

Note that I am not making a binding judgment against voting for Republican candidates at the national level. I would recommend against it, because they have broken a system in which Congress can function. Nevertheless, if you believe that Republican extremism will solve the challenges that Americans face, you should vote Republican. But keep in mind that the Republican party in the U.S. is not like the Conservative Party in the U.K., the Conservative Party in Canada, the National Party in New Zealand, or the LNP of Australia. Those parties respect the norms of government. In many nations, there’s an anti-establishment swing, which has led to be the election of extreme left-wing and right-wing parties but in these cases too, the victorious parties (for the most part) respect traditions when it comes to keeping government functioning and responsive. Some of them may become radical over time, but that has yet to happen.


Superficially, the two halves of this essay seem to swing in opposite directions. The first half encourages you to respect your political opponents, whereas the second half is a condemnation of one type of political party. The primary difference is that the first half concerns the public and the second half concerns politicians.

The public is usually split based on tendencies toward conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism. Sometimes these tendencies take destructive paths — communism or fascism are obvious examples — but for the most part, you can respect opposing beliefs instead of interpreting them as evil. However, politicians are different. In recent years, for instance, the Republican party has disenfranchised voters to win elections, which is unequivocally immoral. I cannot resolve this contradiction, but I can point out that you may have to live with it. Wherever you decide to live, try to understand the difference between the public and the political class. If you’re fortunate, you will reside in a country where each political party acts in good faith, but if not, you may find good people voting for a bad candidate.