Academics Discuss American Democracy and the Election: Part 3/3
- Robert Mather is a professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research is on social cognition, and he blogs as The Conservative Social Psychologist at Psychology Today.
- Lee Jussim is professor of psychology at Rutgers. He is one of the founding members of Heterodox Academy, and former chair of his department. Much of his current research focuses on scientific integrity and science reform, and he blogs as Rabble Rouser at Psychology Today.
- George Yancey is professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He has studied race bias, but, more recently, has focused on anti-Christian bias and discrimination.
- April Kelly-Woessner is professor and chair of political science at Elizabethtown college. Her research focuses on the intersection of politics and education.
- Jussim is a founding member of Heterodox Academy. Mather, Yancey, and Kelly-Woessner are all also members of Heterodox Academy.
I (Lee) initiated this conversation, because I saw what I considered to be histrionic reactions to the election among many of my academic colleagues. Now, admittedly, it was an extraordinary election. People have many good reasons to be deeply concerned about Trump. But the reactions went beyond “deep concern.” I had three, yes, count ‘em three, colleagues compare Trump to Hitler, and/or accuse those of us who advocate for political diversity in academia as welcoming Nazis.
Combine this personal experience with many on the left talking as if they “were traumatized” and all sorts of special messages from college administrators and at least one psychological professional organization (the Society for Personality and Social Psychology) expressing “concerns” about people after the election in ways that made it vividly clear which side they were on, and it seemed imperative to me that academics (especially) model how to have a thoughtful, rather than histrionic, discourse about the election.
The upshot was this series of conversations. The first two questions were framed in a way that many on the right, and those who voted for Trump, might view as biased. That was intentional, because they were meant to address quite directly concerns expressed by the left.
In this third entry, we shift gears, from directly addressing the left’s expressed concerns, to critically examining the left’s reaction to the election. The participants in this conversation include, besides myself, Robert Mather (who blogs as The Conservative Social Psychologist), George Yancey (a sociologist whose clarion call for free speech on campus can be found here), and April Kelly-Woessner (a political scientist whose blog on how the intellectual table for intolerance of political diversity was set in the 1960s can be found here). More information on the contributors can be found in the introduction to each of the first two blogs.
Q3: Many on the left talk as if they are “traumatized” by the 2016 Presidential election. Is this because they cannot handle losing, because the election punctured their smug sense of their own superiority, because their politics led them to bizarrely exaggerated conclusions that Trump was an anti-democratic neo-Nazi like fascist? Or is Trump really the American Hitler? (or even the American Franco or Mussolini?)
Mather: Trump is certainly not the American version of a dictator, although that is the fear of many. To those who says he is, I point out that he has a consistent record of not killing any adversaries or invading foreign countries. Adolph Hitler became the leader of the Nazi Party in 1921 at the age of 32 and Chancellor /Fuhrer of Germany by the age of 44. Donald Trump is entering politics at 70 years old. Rational thought and evidence leads one to conclude that most politicians do not become dictators.
Jussim: Trump is not Hitler. Both Mussolini’s fascists and the Nazis rose to power over many years, in part, on the strength of paramilitary wings used for violence and intimidation. Trump has no political movement; and his non-movement has no paramilitary wing. There are authoritarians in the Republican Party, but they were disproportionately attracted to candidates other than Trump.
Is it really reasonable to be traumatized by election of a self-aggrandizing narcissistic sexual harasser whose main political experience prior to the campaign was a bizarre quest to “reveal” that Obama was born outside the U.S., whose main accomplishment was to take $200 million and, 40 years later, turn it into less than the amount that it could have been worth had it been invested in in a stock index fund, and whose rhetoric was a strange combination of blowhard, sneers, nativism, insults at opponents and racist/sexist dogwhistle terms that the white supremacist right heard loud and clear? By election of a hypocrite who, as he was calling for “draining swamps” was settling suits against his charity and university for corruption? And who was rated by Politifact as the greatest liar of any of the candidates in both primaries?
Is it reasonable to be traumatized by the fact that almost half the voters in the country thought this was just great stuff, or, if not great stuff, better than the stuff offered by a former senator and Secretary of State with an email problem? Or that Trump won the election despite receiving almost 3 million fewer votes?
Trumpistas, this little rant has not been for you, or to revisit the election. It was for the Lefties — just to let you Lefties know that I really truly see what you are upset about. But trauma?
However flawed Trump may be, some of your “trauma” is likely a result of your partisanship distorting your perceptions of Trump, making him seem far worse than he has at least so far demonstrated himself to be. Partisan distortion of opponents’ views and positions is well-established in the psychological literature; you are not likely to be immune.
Lefties, you can see a mirror image of how you look and sound by considering some of the right’s reactions to Obama (birth certificate anyone?). You can also check out some of the comments on the prior conversations. Apparently, to some, Obama was “undemocratic” when he … passed policies that the commenters did not like (uhhh, righties, sorry, but that is kinda how democracy works, remember?). But, then, the shoe can also go on the other foot, too. In other words…
Left, welcome to American democracy. Sometimes, you win elections and you get at least some of what you voted for. Other times, you lose elections, and get people and lots of stuff you oppose. (Hey, righties – same goes for you. When you lose, it does not make the victor Evil Incarnate or un-American).
Lefties, righties – can we agree that the best way to resolve political differences is elections? I mean, there are other ways. Shall we kill each other till no one is left on one side? Hey, if your enemies are all dead, its Utopia, right? Don’t you wish you lived in Cambodia in 1985? Or Syria right now? How about a military government, say, as they have in Egypt or Myanmar? Don’t you wish you lived there? Or we can first create an aristocracy – in the old days, this was hereditary, but, we could go with, say, billionaires – and have them choose a monarch or emperor, say, as they did throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. Serfdom, anyone?
Academic Left, you say you value “diversity.” You just got a big fat dose of diversity. There are millions, tens of millions of people who think very differently than you do. I am not saying you should value racism, sexual harassment, or hate crimes. But if you are an academic, especially an academic in the humanities and social sciences, the idea that over 60million people voted for Trump because of rather than despite his weaknesses, you are deluding yourself. Your own Michael Moore can help you understand this as can actually listening to (rather than dismissing as bigots) those who voted for Trump.
Last, lefties, stop acting like you are traumatized; or, if you really feel traumatized, get over it, and get active. That is also democracy in action. Take advantage of America’s federalist system (don’t like the President or Congress? Make your state a better place). If you need some inspiration for how, you might start with Jerry Brown.
Lefties, you bear some of the responsibility for the Rise of Trump. The “shrieking, victimhood-obsessed culture on the far left” has produced a predictable and well-deserved backlash. If you do not want a self-aggrandizing, ignorant, twitter-shrieking, inexperienced narcissist as president, then perhaps you might consider reigning in two of your own side’s worst tendencies – your worst (and often loudest) elements’ smug self-appointed superiority; and those same elements’ anti-democratic attempts to suppress speech and academic freedom.
Finally, Trump is not off to such a bad start. He was elected to keep jobs here, and the Carrier deal did that to at least some degree. One thumbs up. Taiwan call? A bit brinksmanship-y, but, on the other hand, Taiwan is a liberal democracy, whereas China is a totalitarian relic of its Communist past, a neighborhood bully, and it is about time someone big stood up to them. Another thumbs up. And just as Congressional Republicans were on the verge of bagging an ethics oversight committee, a single Tweet by Trump nipped that effort in the bud. A third thumbs up. It is not all wine and roses. Trump’s appointments of know-nothings, generals, billionaires, and fraudsis not looking great; and his refusal to distance himself from his business interests is sure looking like a Very Undrained Swamp to me. But this is not Hell on Earth (at least not yet).
Some have argued that American is riddled with twin political cancers: The dogmatic, post-truth, obstructionist right and the simplistic self-righteous oppressiveness of the social justice left. Trump – who is not an ideologue, and who prides himself on getting things done – in this view, just might be the awful, sickening chemotherapy that must be endured to cure both.
Trump could be a disaster. This is always worth being vigilant about. But “trauma”?
Especially in academia, instead of retreating into your candy-coated echo chambers of like-minded lefties and safe spaces filled with puppies, act like adults. Seek unsafe spaces – seek allies and dialogue among those you disagree with. The existence and growth of Heterodox Academy is testament that it can be done. Although I am not saying you need to coddle white supremacists and Klansmen repackaged as “alt-right,” not all or even most, even on the alt-right are these sort of vile harbingers of hate. Breitbart’s (the self-described “platform for the alt-right) field general, Milo Yiannopoulos, rejects those extremists, as has Trump himself. As Obama has repeatedly stated, feel free to defend and promote your views, but do so not only without shutting down those you disagree with, but, in academia, actively embracing the civil exchange of alternative perspectives.
Academics do not always get everything right. Without presuming our own superiority, can we make some effort to bag the virtue signaling? Let’s try to preserve and advance academia as a haven of sanity and rationality – which includes correcting those who are manifestly wrong, engaging with those we disagree with on topics that are truly debatable and uncertain, and having the wisdom to know the difference. Something that is “offensive” but correct is … correct. Something that we like but is incorrect is … still incorrect. Of course, not everything is a question of fact, but in scholarship and teaching, whether it is history, anthropology, psychology, or biology, the main quest should be for truth, no matter who finds it offensive.
Yancey: Even given my low opinion of Trump, I am disturbed by those who talk about being traumatized. An election was lost. There will be polices many of the left reject. I understand the disappointment of many individuals. But, this happened four and eight years ago for those on the right and they had the same reason to feel disenfranchised. A lot of anger was present to be sure, but I do not remember protests directly aimed at stopping Obama from becoming president and ill-advised attempts to overturn the results of the election by recounts in three different states. Perhaps I have memory bias, but it does seem to me that there is a qualitative difference in the reaction to Trump’s election by his political opponents than Obama’s election. (However, the labeling of Trump as Hitler is not unique to this election as I remember similar insults launched at Obama.)
Would there be this much concern if we were looking at a President Bush, Rubio or Cruz? We probably would not see this much protest. But I do not think it is just the uniqueness of Trump. If another Republican was elected I would be surprised if we did not see some, although a lower level of, protesting. My work on cultural progressive activists indicates that they envision their political opponents as not just wrong, but also dangerous. Losing a political contest becomes quite different if you envision losing as the “end of the world.”
This type of desperation may be related to some of the issues we face at Heterodoxy. We are fighting to create an atmosphere of academic freedom, especially as it concerns political issues. But if mostly progressive academics conceptualize non-leftist academics as dangerous, then they have sufficient emotional, as well as cognitive, justifications for silencing and sanctioning them. I believe that some of the hyperbole surrounding the reaction to Trump is the type of overreaction we often see on college campuses when cherished elements of academic dogma is challenged.
Kelly-Woessner: I think the intensity of feeling surrounding Trump’s victory is not merely the result of “losing an election.” Rather, Trump’s victory revealed to progressives that their core values are not as widely endorsed as they had believed. The Left considered Trump’s comments and actions to be deal breakers, given their value rankings, and were dismayed when others didn’t share their view.
I have serious concerns about Trump’s leadership, experience, and character. For me, his actions and statements should have disqualified him from the presidency. Yet the deep sense of loss experienced by some of my colleagues and students goes beyond this. They are traumatized not by Trump’s win, but by what they think it reveals about the American voter. I believe their assessment of the nature of Trump’s support is incorrect and a product of ideological isolation.
It is natural to feel sad or disappointed when others don’t share your values. Progressives experienced an intensified reaction akin to “trauma” because this sadness and disappointment was combined with utter disbelief. The election outcome was jarring, in part, because people didn’t expect it. They didn’t expect it because The Left has become ideologically isolated and is now incapable of recognizing any moral legitimacy or intellectual merit in alternative frames and perspectives.
Because progressives have defined all political conflict in terms of social identities, they view electoral loss as an act of aggression against underrepresented groups. If the primary purpose of liberalism is defined as the promotion of minority groups, a rejection of liberalism appears to be racism, sexism, and homophobia. Trump’s victory, through this lens, means that we can’t trust our neighbors; they are full of hate and wish us harm.
Yet, if one rejects the premise that political division is or should be defined primarily by social identity, then Trump’s victory need not reveal a racist, sexist, homophobic America. Rather, it might represent an America divided on the role of government in people’s lives. It might represent an America divided by class and frustrated by the lack of opportunity for those without college degrees. It might even represent an America that is tired of racial conflict, but that believes The Left’s approach to resolving it amounts to counterproductive “race-baiting.”
One could interpret the results of the 2016 election in any number of ways that are not rooted in discrimination and hate. The problem is that progressive academics have become so politically isolated, that these alternative frames elude them. In fact, they produce scholarship and evidence that “proves” Trump’s victory was, in fact, rooted in racism. The problem, however, is that the definition of racism in these studies is based on this leftist premise and is seldom subject to legitimate peer challenge. Conservative values are, almost by definition, labeled as racist, as are any concerns about progressive efforts to reduce racism.
For example, a recent article in Salon.com concluded that Trump’s victory was not the result of economic worries, but rather due to “deep racial animosity.” Several of my colleagues cited this “evidence” in a recent discussion about the true nature of Trump’s supporters. Yet the analysis relies on a single measure of racial animosity – response to the question, “How likely is it that many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead?” In other words, if you believe that affirmative action – a program specifically designed to give preference to minorities in order to correct past discrimination – is working as intended, you must harbor “deep racial animosity.” Many of the other studies on the hateful nature of Trump’s support use similarly problematic measures of “racism.”
This is a perfect example of the problem of ideological homogeneity in our universities. Liberal frames, assumptions, and definitions go unchallenged and thus become self-reinforcing. Without exposure to ideological difference and intellectual challenge, it is far too easy to define our side as noble and any opposition to our objectives as evil. The triumph of evil is understandably traumatizing.
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