But they do fear the loss of “traditional” culture and they don’t know what else to call that
The first time that I heard someone talk about socialism in the context of the recent election, I laughed — the kind of laugh where you snort and then giggle a little bit. Fortunately, it wasn’t to anyone’s face, and when I did hear it in person again, later on, I was able to keep from snorting (at least out loud). Joe Biden is a lot of things, not all of them positive, but a socialist is not one of those things. In fact, he’s actually publicly come out against single-payer health care. Another one of the main criticisms of Biden more generally is that he stands so much for the status quo. If the Democrats had wanted a candidate with more overt leanings towards democratic socialism, they would have nominated Bernie Sanders.
A vote for Biden wasn’t going to bring on a socialist dystopia. This was fear-mongering rhetoric from Republican political operatives — and it worked. They used that term the way that Ronald Reagan used to talk about the Soviet Union as the evil empire. More and more I began to hear this kind of rhetoric — from the lady who cuts my hair, to the guy at the next table in the diner, and on a campaign sign at my local polling place, acting as if voting for Biden would automatically trigger a socialist revolution in America.
But calling Biden a socialist when he clearly isn’t even remotely anything of the sort, makes sense from a rhetoric perspective. It’s calling attention to the fact that he doesn’t represent the same types of values as Trump, although quite ironically, Biden is also in many ways an icon of the patriarchal social structure as well. He’s also an old, rich, white, heterosexual, Christian man who has been known to make casually racist and misogynistic comments without even realizing that they are offensive because “that’s just the way things are” — at least in his world view.
Biden single-handedly quashed the #MeToo movement when his inappropriate behavior with a wide variety of women and girls had to be overlooked in order to allow for his candidacy — behavior that he never quite understood as truly being a problem. The fact that so many liberals were willing to look the other way on that because he seemed to be the most viable Democratic candidate (in spite of that behavior) speaks to a whole other can of worms that I don’t have room to go into here.
Biden’s dominance hierarchy cred is not quite so heavy-handed as Trump’s, but it’s definitely there, none-the-less. Despite giving lip service to women’s equality and LGBTQ rights, Biden voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. He also voted for the spending bill which included “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which prohibited openly gay people from serving in the military.
I predicted in March that Biden would beat Trump because he does have so much in common with him, but just comes in a slightly more palatable package. Biden represents a lot that Trump also represents, and that’s why it was so important to find a way to demonize him — to keep swing voters who were disillusioned with Trump from going over to Biden or to make sure that die-hards actually went to the polls. Calling him a socialist worked remarkably well in some sectors, but not because he actually is. It was simply a way to brand him as being against “our way of life” and “our values.”
There are many democratic socialist countries in the developed world, and far from being dystopian, they simply support moving towards a more equal society by the removal of class privilege (which is often unearned) in ways that are compatible with liberty and democracy. Communism, on the other hand, believes in removing class privilege through authoritarianism and loss of individual liberty.
The US is nowhere near a democratic socialist government and probably never will be.
The US is nowhere near a democratic socialist government and probably never will be. For example, we have no guaranteed basic income or national health care system. This country does, however, have a long history of socialistic programs, such as Social Security, and SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program). Considering that we have an aging population and the fact that 1 in 5 children and 1 in 5 elderly citizens routinely don’t get enough to eat, it would be incredibly heartless to look at those programs as unnecessary or worse yet, malevolent. Defense, roads, police, and fire — all things that most conservatives are in favor of — are other socialistic services that taxpayers fund for the good of all.
In fact, as Orwell pointed out in Homage to Catalonia, the Communists stood not on the extreme left, but on the extreme right.
George Orwell, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, was a committed democratic socialist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, seeking to stop the spread of fascism. He was an ardent critic of Soviet-backed communism and all authoritarian and totalitarian governments. Democratic socialism isn’t likely to take over the American system anytime soon, and even if it did, it isn’t some kind of “communism light” as some conservative voters seem to believe, perhaps because it none-the-less threatens their belief systems and they don’t know what else to call it. In fact, as Orwell pointed out in Homage to Catalonia, the Communists stood not on the extreme left, but on the extreme right.
Aside from the fact that Biden isn’t trying to actually move towards socialism, asking that the very wealthy and big businesses pay their fair share in taxes isn’t socialism — it’s common sense. In the 1950s and 60s, the richest Americans paid a top income tax rate of 91%. Today that top number is 43.4%, with most of the 400 richest Americans paying just 20% in 2009. The Biden tax plan proposes to raise taxes on those earning more than $400,000 per year, and to adjust the corporate income tax rate but neither would even remotely approach the 91% rate of the past and would simply seek to close some of the loopholes that the very rich use in order to pay less in taxes than ordinary citizens.
The organization, Americans For Tax Fairness has determined that
- 1,470 households reported income of more than $1 million in 2009 but paid zero federal income taxes on it.
- 30 percent of income inequality is due to unfair taxes and budget cuts to services and benefits.
Asking the very rich to pay their fair share shouldn’t be controversial, especially since the Trump administration put more money into the hands of the already ultra-wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. American billionaires wealth grew approximately 10.6% under Trump’s administration, leading to an ever-deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots, and increasing the national debt by 36%. Donald Trump himself paid no taxes in 10 of the past 15 years. In 2016 he paid $750.
For close to half the country, that was a non-issue, however. The recent US election demonstrated just how deeply committed many people still are to the “traditional” social system — the one that is based in a patriarchal dominance hierarchy — something that Donald Trump is the poster-boy of. A while back Rick Perry declared that Trump was “the chosen one” sent to save this country. What he meant by that is the same thing that Trump’s slogan Make America Great Again means — a broader return to the “traditional” culture of 50 or 60 years ago.
The dominance hierarchy is the pyramid-shaped social structure that has been a given in this country until very recently — one where rich white heterosexual Christian men hold the top positions of power and authority, and all others fall below them to varying degrees. It hearkens back to the pre-Civil Rights era, and the pre-women’s lib era when people “knew their place.” The problem is that for the past 60 years, those static places on the pyramid have been eroding, and people who used to quietly keep to the shadows are now asking for a seat at the table.
The traditional model (what cognitive scientist George Lakoff calls The Strict Father model) is patriarchal, both at home and in the larger society. It is a hierarchy that uses authoritarian power that has historically been granted to certain people (men, and white men, in particular) to lead both within the family and the larger society. The Strict Father model does not necessarily describe every aspect of all of the beliefs of every person who identifies as a conservative, since things that involve human beings tend to have a lot of nuances, but it does describe one core way of looking at the world that is significantly different than the other core outlook found in the Nurturant Parent model. For more about what these terms mean, read my story, Moral Politics: The Nation As A Family. These are not meant to be monoliths, but merely representations of two different fundamental perspectives on the world.
The Strict Father model believes that the world is difficult and people have to be self-disciplined in order to survive in a difficult world. Rewards and punishments by the parent are beneficial to the children because they help to teach the child to be able to survive on its own. In this way of thinking, punishment for disobedience is understood as a form of love. “According to this model, if you are obedient, you will become self-disciplined, and only if you are self-disciplined can you succeed. Success is therefore a sign of having been obedient and having become self-disciplined. Success is a just reward for acting within this moral system. This makes success moral.”
In this way of looking at the world, wealth is then conflated with morality, and poverty with immorality. Taxation of the rich is seen as punishing those who have done what is right and succeeded at it. Competition is seen as a necessary part of maintaining self-discipline. “Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person. If competition were removed, self-discipline would cease and people would cease to develop and use their talents. The individual’s authority over himself would decay.” In this way, competition is prioritized over cooperation.
Because democratic socialism has the goal of creating greater economic equality, when less advantaged, non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual citizens begin to ask for and get some measure of power and equality that they don’t seem to have earned through naked competition, it is highly disruptive to the way things “ought to be.” Leveling out the pyramid feels like a loss of rights and a betrayal of the might makes right principles of social Darwinism. It might feel like socialism, even though it actually isn’t.
When Tennessee Councilman Warren Hurst went on a public rant a while back decrying the fact that a “queer” was running for president, he and those who cheered for him were feeling this dynamic. “I’m not prejudiced, but by golly,” continued Hurst, waving his finger in the air, “a white male in this country has very few rights, and they’re getting took (sic) more every day.”
Until 60 years ago, the mainstream consensus was that the US was a white, male-dominated, heterosexual, Christian country with a certain outlook on how to behave and how to achieve. As this continues to be challenged and women and minorities take up more visible positions in the public arena, it begins to feel to some like a war on the establishment (even in some cases to some women and minorities). Donald Trump is an embodied representation of that establishment. He strongly believes in maintaining it and isn’t shy about saying so. That is his main attraction and he seems to stand for little else.
Despite the fact that we’d just spent four years being assaulted by Trump’s wildly unpresidential behavior, more white women and more Hispanic men voted for him in 2020 than they did in 2016. The Republican party didn’t even bother to create a platform this time around, because on the national level, at least, it doesn’t stand for anything other than the Trumpian appeal of taking America back to the 1950s when the social hierarchy and the Strict Father model were well established and largely accepted. It’s a value system that teaches that hard work and self-discipline will lead to climbing the rungs of the ladder, despite inherent structural barriers that often actively prevent that from being possible. It’s about a time when the entire culture was more “traditional”, aka patriarchal. That’s what Make American Great Again means, after all.
This is not an indication of conscious racism or misogyny, at least not necessarily, but it is a reflection on the resonance of a certain outlook. As cognitive scientist, George Lakoff says, only about 2% of thought is actually conscious, and “Deep and persisting moral worldviews tend to be part of your brain circuitry and tend to become part of your identity. In most cases, the neural wiring — and your identity — stay, and the facts are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked.” Because logic works by embodied primitives, frames, conceptual metaphor, and conceptual integration, actual data often has little impact on how we feel about a particular topic or a particular candidate.
Conservative voters tend to resonate with a certain values-oriented worldview, just as liberal voters resonate with an entirely different one. It has little to do with actual policies or issues, except as they reflect back to which set of values you prioritize. This is why working-class Republicans often vote against their own economic self-interest, and why Red states consequently end up receiving the most Federal aid. More importantly, how each candidate seems to embody these values is central to their appeal, rather than the policies that they are likely to actually enact.
Not everyone who voted for Trump was an Archie Bunker type or the wife of one who wanted to keep the relative privilege that conveys, but they were overwhelmingly people who felt that their interests were being displaced somehow — by immigrants, by “leftist elites”, by the interests of gay and transgender people, by brown people who rape white women, etc., but mostly by the erosion of “traditional” culture.
The legitimacy of the person in authority is an important aspect of patriarchal/traditional values also. Advocates of Strict Father morality have a huge resentment toward any moral authority deemed to be illegitimately meddling in their lives, which is why the socialist label was such an inspired one for viscerally connecting with certain people. And it’s why Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is such a powerful, albeit reprehensible, act. It further delegitimizes Biden’s presidency and further undermines his authority.
The folk theory of the natural order is often used to determine authority in a might makes right context. Examples of the natural order are as follows:
- God is naturally more powerful than people.
- People are naturally more powerful than animals and plants and natural objects.
- Adults are naturally more powerful than children.
- Men are naturally more powerful than women.
This legitimizes the patriarchal dominance hierarchy as being natural and therefore moral. It makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order. It legitimatizes the view of nature as a resource for human use and, correspondingly, man as steward over nature. It also stimulates theories of so-called natural superiority as discussed in books like The Bell Curve, which purports connections between race and intelligence. Homosexuality also violates this natural order.
The people who subconsciously believe in this so-called natural order are not inherently evil or morally bankrupt. They simply have a different set of values that have been instilled in them, most often in childhood. These beliefs stem from a time not all that long ago when most people believed in this natural order to a greater or lesser extent. That’s why it’s “traditional.”
Many liberal voters still have vestiges of this worldview buried deep in their subconscious as well. Unconscious bias is not the sole purview of conservatives. As Kate Manne points out about misogyny, unconsciously feeling that the way things “ought to be” has been disrupted can still co-exist with a conscious belief in equality.
And for some people, feminism in particular has profoundly disrupted their sense of the social order. The hostility they display to women who disrupt or pose a threat to gendered social hierarchies, say, is compatible with their being egalitarians in the abstract. They may nevertheless perceive powerful women who do not wield their power in service of men’s interests as abrasive and threatening.
We’re all still grappling with the dominance-based hierarchy that our culture has long been steeped in, and whether or not we are going to try to bring it more fully back or to push on toward a more partnership-oriented system remains to be seen. However, many businesses are moving towards hierarchies of actualization, another term for a partnership-oriented structure, because they tend to be more agile.
This is an organizational structure where the leaders not only expect support and respect from those whom they have authority over, but they also give it back reciprocally. Organizational goals get achieved through collaboration and relatedness, rather than paternalism or threats and it’s much more in line with the Nurturant Parent model. Many younger people resonate with and appreciate this organizational style and it works well for industries where quick responsiveness to new data is vital.
As of right now, the country seems to be pretty evenly divided between those who resonate with Strict Father morality (traditional, patriarchal, dominance-based hierarchy) and Nurturant Parent morality (values centered around interdependence and empathy for those who need help). Compound that with the fact that politics is a game that often has little to do with the actual will of the people — on either side of the aisle — and you’ve got a complex world where no-one is objectively good or bad.
There is, however, a culture war going on over which values system will eventually become the more prevalent one in this country. Labeling Joe Biden as a socialist was just one way to try to impact that struggle. It had little basis in actual fact, but it still conveyed the desired message, “He’s not like you, and he wants to override your system of values.”
As I said above, it is widely agreed that Biden overwhelmingly stands for the status quo, and he has repeatedly expressed interest in reviving bipartisanship and cooperation, something he was known for in the Senate. But it was still a pretty effective assertion with many voters none-the-less. In a patriarchal paradigm, if you don’t win, you lose, and any perceived erosion of “traditional” culture feels like something is being unjustly stolen. Just ask Councilman Hurst and the people who applauded his rant. Just ask the 70 million people who voted for Donald Trump.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.