I Caused 2016 Because I Was Too Hateful
Mourning for an America I Never Knew
Today when I was chanting the Psalmody in the Lutheran lectionnary to my wife as she got ready for work, I was struck by the words of today’s Psalm:
I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you; My soul thirsts for you like a parched land. — Psalm 143
What struck me was that I do not remember better times. I do not remember an America where loathing, fear, and disdain were not the basic, operative tone for political discourse. I do not recollect a nation in which we work together in hope that everybody can be better off. Maybe it existed during my (still very young) lifetime, but I never knew it. I do not remember the days of old; when I meditate on all that I see, when I ponder the works I see before me, they are angry, violent people unleashing that fury in spasms of violence, wrath, and disrespect.
This post is about the election; a significant jump away from my usual migration-and-economics fare. But it’s also not about the election; it’s about the fact that I don’t feel I’ve done enough. I don’t know exactly how to make the nation better; I want to, but my preferred candidate scored a whopping 1% of the vote, and I voted for him in a jurisdiction that voted for Clinton with 90% of the vote, so, yeah, my vote doesn’t matter. And since apparently only 1% of Americans share my worldview, I figure I need a new tactic. So here’s my go of it.
What happened in 2016?
I don’t mean “how did Trump win.” We’ll be getting post-mortems and political science research for decades. I mean, how did the nation get this way?
Look at your Facebook feed. Look at Twitter. Look at your own words and actions, at celebrities: how much vitriol, how much condescension, how much anger do you see? It is universal.
We have become an angry people.
The result is that we can’t even listen to each other. And if one of us does start listening, he or she is branded a traitor to their cause. Suggest that maybe we should in fact be worried about Nazis and fascists supporting Trump? YOU’RE JUST DEFENDING A CRIMINAL AND YOU’LL GET YOURS! Suggest that maybe Trump was speaking to some concerns and fears that do have some legitimate basis in fact? YOU’RE SUCH A HATEFUL PERSON WE CAN’T LET YOU KEEP YOUR JOB.
Deviate from tribal orthodoxy and punishment will be swift.
My goal here isn’t to argue for any candidate. I wish a plague on both their houses; we could not have been offered a more wretched choice if we tried to engineer one.
My goal is to show you how ashamed I am of how we, as a nation, have handled ourselves for at least the last decade. I don’t mean I’m ashamed of conservatives, or I’m ashamed of liberals. I don’t mean I’m ashamed of populists or elitists. I am ashamed of us. And to me, “us,” and “we” still means all Americans. This is my America. What has gone so wrong with it?
Because, you see, the truth is, we got the candidates we wanted; it’s just that we are not good people.
Let me back up. Calling Americans bad people can be fighting words. I don’t mean to say people in other countries are tons better. I don’t know about other countries. I also don’t even mean to claim that we’ve deteriorated; like I said, when I think back, I can’t remember an age free from the despotism of spitefulness. I never knew that republic.
I’m not trying to be “down on America.” I’m as patriotic, as committed to American exceptionalism, and in the end as nationalistic as they come. I’ll spend my Veterans Day remembering my grandfather who racked up 3 Purple Hearts and a chestful of commendations protecting his country, and it nearly makes me cry how proud I am of that lineage. I love this country, I love the American people, and I fear for the direction we’re headed. And by “direction” I don’t mean “progressivism” or “populism” or “Trumpism.” I can find hope and joy living under liberal fascism or conservative fascism. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from an important piece of literature:
“‘Freedom is not a thing you can receive as a gift,’ Pietro said. ‘One can be free even under a dictatorship on one simple condition, that is, if one struggles against it. A man who thinks with his own mind and remains uncorrupted is a free man. A man who struggles for what he believes to be right is a free man. You can live in the most democratic country in the world, and if you are lazy, callous, servile, you are not free, in spite of the absence of violence and coercion, you are a slave. Freedom is not a thing that must be begged from others. You must take it for yourself, whatever share you can.”
-Pietro to Nunzio, in “Bread and Wine,” by Ignazio Silone
But there is one condition I fear more than tyranny by the state: for my national family to tyrannize itself with fear.
I do not know how to have hope for my nation, how to practically make things better, when we would rather dance on the graves of our rivals than mourn with their widows and children. These people are your countrymen. Trump voters, Clinton voters, non-voters, 3rd-partiers: you are one nation under God, indivisible.
But fear, and especially fear of our neighbors and our countrymen, will destroy us. I think of another of my favorite quotes:
“[A writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”
-William Faulkner, “Nobel Banquet Speech”
I understand fearing ISIS, or Russia, or a bad economy, or climate change, or hurricanes, or earthquakes, or Ebola, or pollution… but your fellow Americans?
How low have we sunk that we fear and loathe our neighbors?
I have been complacent. I bet you have too.
Too often, I have failed to argue with my own side. I have seen dangerous arguments advanced, and have not corrected them. Oh make no mistake, I’ve had my disagreements with my fellow conservatives, but I have not been dogged enough in pressing the importance of fundamental truths: we must love our neighbors as we do ourselves, we must protect the basic liberties that make our nation great, we must never surrender the moral territory won by our courageous ancestors.
We must never call our neighbors enemies. My neighbor is not my enemy, but the object of my love and sacrifice.
Yet there is a hard balance to strike. I have been complacent in responding to what is wrong; yet I have been eager to provoke and to argue. We must strenuously object to what is wrong; and we must twice as strenuously demonstrate the alternative.
I must remind my neighbor of my love for him with greater frequency and volume than I tell him of his error.
It is not enough to do this in our private lives. This must be political practice. We need Americans at all levels to renew their love for one another as part of a national family. This means changing our tone, this means changing how we talk, this means changing how we spend our time, this means changing how we act.
Politicians are not innovative creatures: they follow where the country leads.
This year, we got spiteful politicians. This was a very nasty campaign. Don’t argue about whether one side was nastier. Don’t tell me one side had it coming. Don’t beg off the shame because the other side nominated a criminal.
You did this. I did this. We showed politicians that vitriol and hatred were effective. In our Facebook rants, in our un-friending, in our mob-shaming, in our boycotting, in our isolation, in our chanting, in our occupying, in our insulting, in our violence and our counter-violence, in our preference for the shouted epithet over the whispered encouragement, in our love of charisma and wrath over decorum and respect: we did this.
Our candidates realized all we really wanted was to screw over our neighbors, and so they gave us that.
I’m not trying to explain Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders, or Cruz, or anybody. I’m trying to make sense of how we can continue as a nation. I don’t mean as one political unit; it is easy enough to keep us all governed by one entity. With the right political structure and a little bit of luck any amount of internal division and hatred can be sustained for centuries at least.
But I don’t want to be 5 nations under one government. I want one, indivisible nation. Nation here means a people, a common group, in some sense an extended family.
I do not want to be part of the Red Tribe or the Blue Tribe, but the American Tribe.
Many reading this will say, “Kumbaya is nice Lyman, but it’s naive.”
I am not naive. I understand that loathing is a winning strategy. I’m not asking our candidates to change. They’re just doing what the electorate wants. I’m not saying we need all our elected officials to start compromising more. We don’t. Lukewarm bipartisanship is not the solution. We need America’s diverse political preferences represented. I am not criticizing partisanship or ideology here.
I am saying that the American people need to improve. We have always been a great nation, but we have never been a perfect one. There have been times when we were better than today, and times when we were worse. We should work on becoming better. And when I say “we” I don’t just mean politicians and elites: I mean all of us who aren’t “opinion-makers” and “influencers.” We have got to be better.
We’ve all seen videos by now of Clinton supporters beating up Trump voters, or Trump supporters beating up Clinton voters. This is where we are as a nation. We are so angry that we have actually started fighting each other.
I’m not saying we have to be less partisan. I’m not saying we have to compromise on policy. I’m saying we have to be less angry, bitter, and full of wrathfulness.
Let’s talk about what happens if we keep heating up the pressure-cooker of modern American society.
Politicians will increasingly cater to angrier and angrier voters, and probably to more ideologically polarized voters (though, again, I’m not talking about polarization here). Angry voters will encourage politicians to use more extreme measures to bring about their ideological vision. We will see both sides restrict civil rights and liberties. We will also see extreme swings in power as the two angry bases get alternatively fired up over the latest transgressions.
With faster and faster swings in power and more extreme uses of power, we will follow the course of the Purge-societies of the past. Each new elected group will seek to consolidate its power by purging rivals: first by lawsuits, then by restrictions on speech, then by increasing criminalization of dissent, and ultimately by mob violence or political murder. Yes, it could happen here. Not tomorrow. Probably not in the next 10 years. But the present course will get us there eventually.
To be clear, this really is not about ideology. The bloody purges of late-Republican Rome were not driven by entrenched ideological divisions. They were driven by angry factionalism and the quest for tribal empowerment. The purges in the USSR were cloaked in ideology, but were ultimately about the same thing: a paranoid and angry society found purges a useful way to secure power for an in-group.
If the celebration of anger continues, our political life will devolve into violence regardless of ideological or policy divisions.
The next time you hear your pastor say the end of the Church in America is near, you should respond with, “Oh, come on pastor, you don’t know that. That’s just fear and paranoia speaking. The church only ends if we abandon the call to compassion and evangelism! How about we go knock on some doors, doing our part to prevent the ‘end of the church’?”
The next time your activist friend tells you they’re renewing their passport because Trump is going to institute fascism, respond, “Oh, come on friend, you don’t know that. That’s just fear and paranoia speaking.”
When your friend angrily shares on Facebook about how Clinton is going to steal our guns, don’t click “Like.” Click the crying one, and leave a comment, “I worry about 2nd Amendment rights too: but dude, this is just fear and paranoia speaking. The President and Congress don’t even close to have enough legal power to take our guns even if they wanted to.”
And when you see the raging Tweetstorm about how “white America” is totally dedicated to white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies, you could respond, “Racism is a serious problem and I want to do everything I can do end it; but you also have many white allies, and the fear and paranoia you’re promoting is dangerous to all people regardless of race.”
The next time a friend shares a story of ISIS beheading Christians and bemoans the persecution of the worldwide church, you can share the article yourself, but include the headline, “The persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria makes me so angry at violent extremists: I am so glad we live in a nation of laws where we do not have to be afraid of this persecution! God bless America and God bless the 1st Amendment!”
And when somebody tells you it’s time to boycott Business Z because apparently their CEO has conservative views on marriage, I hope you’ll say, “Gosh, I really disagree with those views and I only vote for candidates who support LGBT rights, but I don’t think it helps any of us to segregate everyday society along political lines, and it certainly doesn’t help the workers who may not agree with the CEO’s politics but just needed a job.”
In Nazi Germany, the Nazi party organized a process called “Gleichschaltung.” It means “coordination.” Now, this was a totalitarian state unlike anything we have in the US, so this process of coordination involved the explicit destruction of non-Nazi social structures and replacement with mandatory Nazi ones. But this quote from the organizer of Gleichschaltung, Joseph Goebbels, shows what the real strength of this “coordination” was:
“The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.”
The aim of this coordination was to so restructure previously non-political pieces of life that adherence to Nazi party orthodoxy was invisibly dominant.
We are doing the same thing today. The restaurants you eat at, the grocery story you shop at, the church you go (or don’t go) to, the athletes you cheer for, the car you drive, the parenting style you espouse, the newspapers you read, are all more correlated with ideology than it seems anyone can remember. I have no hard data on this, and that worries me, but it does seem that even people much older and more experienced than me observe this increasing correlation, this burgeoning coordination, of society.
Both sides organize boycotts, treat certain companies as being on “their team,” demand that celebrities pick a side, etc. And on each individual case, this process is good! We want celebrities to support a good cause, we want companies to make ethical decisions.
The introducion of political ideology and anger to previously nonpolitical arenas is a tragedy of the commons.
At each increment, it makes sense to push for a little bit more politicization or ideology. Toms will put shoes on the feet of poor kids. That’s so good! We encourage that!
Also, now your shoe purchasing decisions are an ideo-political signifier! Your shoe purchases!
And when everybody does this with every decision, the result is that we didn’t even need a totalitarian government. We tyrannized ourselves. We didn’t need Gleichschaltung forced on us; we leapt into it eagerly, and patted ourselves on the back for our discerning ethical tastes.
(And, sidenote as an economist: this also reduces the competitiveness of the market and allows inefficient companies to hold captive markets, which gives them economic rents, which makes inequality worse. Cheers!)
I suspect every reader I have saw one of my examples above and said, “I was with you for the others, but this one is an exception! This case is worth getting angry about!” It’s just like the accidental Gleichschaltung: a tragedy of the commons. We all think there’s just this one thing that’s worth burning down our neighbor’s house over, or getting our neighbor fired over. Everything else is fine! I’ll play nice on every issue except…
There can be no exceptions. Political anger must die.
You can be angry. You can sit down with your spouse and vent all you want. But understand that when you step outside, when you engage in political communication, when you get on Twitter or Facebook, you need to leave that anger at home.
There is one case that is more powerful than all others, because it is literally life-or-death: abortion. For conservatives, abortion represents the genocide of millions of children, disproportionately the children of the poor and the oppressed. We are angry about this. Our anger, if our claims about when life begins are true, is correct and laudable. (of course if our claims are wrong, then we look a little silly, but bear with me, I’ll have a liberal example below too!)
But here’s the crazy thing. Anger hasn’t made people pro-life. If you look at the pro-life campaigns that actually persuade people, it’s never the angry ones. It’s appealing to peoples’ sense of compassion for children. It’s appealing to their beliefs about life. It’s empathy for the pain of the unborn. Pro-life advocates are successful because they work hard to convince people that they don’t hate women, they just love babies. And you know what? As one of them, I can tell you, that’s the truth. We really do just love babies. Go to a pro-life event sometimes. We’re not hateful people.
This rule holds for liberals too. The most effective case of liberal persuasion in living memory has been LGBT rights. Now, it’s also a massive case of the politics of anger… but curiously, we actually know why people changed their opinions! It wasn’t because John Oliver DESTROYED them! The best predictor of changed opinion on LGBT rights isn’t living in an urban area, or exposure to shame… it’s having an LGBT friend or family member talk to you personally. What has driven the massive change in opinion about LGBT rights is compassion, not shame.
Compassion persuades, anger does not.
Maybe I haven’t persuaded you. I hope someone else in your life will succeed where I have failed.
I hope you will think back on times when you have changed your mind. For me, it’s almost always because someone had compassion on me and responded with grace, empathy, and forgiveness. They took the time to listen to my arguments.
And every time I’ve successfully persuaded someone else of something meaningful, it’s because I took the time to listen, to communicate empathy, to assure them that I thought they were a valuable person.
Weirdly enough, I have never been able to persuade someone to change by being spiteful, condescending, and sarcastic towards them. It has never worked for me and, believe me, I have a very large sample size for cases where I have attempted spite, condescension, and sarcasm as a persuasive technique. It doesn’t work.
I’m a Christian so I have a compulsive need to end with a benediction.
Societies change. Culture is not, in fact, immutable. It is hard to change from the top-down, but it absolutely can change from the bottom up. We can actually choose to make our nation better, if we choose to replace anger with radical compassion, if we choose to meet wrath with love, if we choose to meet sarcasm with sincerity.
Doing this will not achieve your preferred policy goal. It will not fix ideological divisions. But it will help us all live together in greater peace.
And in the long run, it is only mutual sympathy and compassion that can save us from violent tyranny.
So there’s your benediction. Fight the forces of casual Gleichschaltung: love your neighbor.
Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.
I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.
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