Bubbles and Mirrors

At some point or another we’ve all strolled down a hall of funhouse mirrors and giggled as each successive one stretched our image into a caricature of ourselves. Some mirrors made us look impossibly tall and others ridiculously short, some made us look like a cartoon character squashed beneath a falling piano and others like we’d been run through the wringer.

Since the 2016 election, commentators across the political spectrum have decried the social bubbles that have sharpened political polarization in this country to a degree unprecedented in the postwar era. These bubbles, they argue, have acted as a funhouse mirror, distorting the image of our political opponents into a caricature or strawman that we can dismiss or revile as we please without addressing their actual beliefs. In the most common version of this critique, those on the left are accused of having magnified the presence of bigotry on the right in general and among Trump supporters in particular and then dismissed the beliefs of 62 million Americans as being irredeemably stained by racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. For anyone concerned about structural inequality and resurgent illiberalism and intolerance in the United States, there is at best a fine line between advocating for openly racist beliefs and being willing to turn a blind eye toward them. Indeed, from an ethical standpoint, there may not be a difference. But from a strategic standpoint, distinguishing between the two can be crucial.

I would suggest that, just as different funhouse mirrors distort our bodies in different ways, so too does the political bubble. If many on the left have allowed the bubble to exaggerate the presence of outright bigotry on the right, other generally well meaning people on the left have allowed the bubble to minimize it. If many on the left have used a distorted image to castigate those who don’t deserve it, others on the left have used a distorted image to exonerate those who don’t deserve it.

A recent poll conducted by the University of Virginia two weeks after the deadly protests there helps cast a sharper light on the issue. The data collected from over 5,000 interviews suggest that, while overt racism remains a minority viewpoint, sympathy for it is shockingly widespread. Furthermore, such beliefs are disproportionately skewed toward Trump voters. For instance, this poll showed that about 1 in 4 Trump voters believe that “Marriage should only be allowed between people of the same race,” while nearly another 1 in 4 wasn’t sure. Among Trump voters, 1 in 6 either disagreed or was unsure whether “All races are equal,” although about half of those expressed that “All races should be treated equally.” Perhaps most alarmingly, 11% of Trump voters expressed support for White Nationalism while another 25% were neutral or unsure toward it, and 6% expressed support for Neo-Nazis while another 16% were neutral or unsure toward it. Lest those on the left feel tempted to climb up on the high horse of self-righteousness, it is important to note that all of these numbers existed at about half the strength among Clinton supporters. Yes, 1 in 15 Hillary supporters—or over 4 million voters—is a White Nationalist.

The lessons from this poll ought to help break down the distortions caused by our bubbles. First, it is important to note that most Americans from across the political spectrum express active opposition to what they identify as overt racism, even when they harbor many of the same views about race. Second, bigotry is not just a problem on the right, but one that is deeply rooted among those of diverse political backgrounds. Third, there are millions of open racists who are more than twice as likely to place themselves in Trump’s camp, and millions more who are at best indifferent toward the oppression of their fellow citizens on the basis of skin color.

This is why it is strategically important for those on the left to ignore the distortions caused by their bubble. It should be clear that most Trump supporters are not overtly racist, but that a dangerous minority among them are. The pressing concern here is that too many of the beliefs that animate the overt racists are held by (predominantly) white Americans regardless of political affiliation, even if they do not identify themselves as racist. Yet.

The task for anyone in this country concerned by the scourge of bigotry ought to be the following. First, acknowledge the rising tide of racism and see it for what it is: a minority but malignant cancer on our society. Second, attack relentlessly those who identify as racist, humiliate and ostracize them, remind them of what America did the last time they tried to rally under Confederate or Nazi flags. Third, call out racist beliefs and sympathies wherever they appear, regardless of party affiliation. But fourth, don’t call somebody a racist if they oppose racism just because they vote Republican. If somebody doesn’t already identify as a racist, don’t try to convince them that they are one—Stormfront is already trying its best to do that. Currently, overt racists and those ripe to become sympathizers are fellow-travelling; the last thing we should be doing is breaking down the barrier that prevents someone with problematic beliefs from leaning in and embracing overt racism. But if we can make a racist identity the most shameful marker in this society, the scarlet letter of hatred and backwardness, we can draw a line that keeps the tide from rushing out. If we then explain to those who remain why racist beliefs are racist, we can hope to reverse that tide and get back on the path toward greater equality and understanding. The one thing that should be clear by now is that allowing our bubbles to cast everyone who votes differently as racist and everyone who votes with us as pure will not take us to where we want to go.

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