Friday, January 27, 2017

Exorcising the "fallen world": Further thoughts

Like Willie (see his thoughtful and intelligent blog post below), I was also struck a comment made by Robert Leonard in his recent New York Times op-ed, "Why Rural America Voted for Donald Trump." In the article, Leonard quotes a statement made by a former Republican congressman now practicing Baptist minister, J. C. Watts. Mr. Watts’ statement—that the differences between Republicans and Democrats can be reduced to beliefs about whether humans are “fundamentally bad” (i.e., the Republican belief) or “fundamentally good” (i.e., the Democratic belief)—conceptualizes the political divide as built upon fundamental belief-systems. Leonard writes:
Hearing Mr. Watts was an epiphany for me. . . . no wonder Republicans and Democrats can't agree on things . . . We live in different philosophical worlds, with different foundational principles.
While compelling, I find Mr. Watts' appeal to human nature curious, not the least because it seems to discount many of the traditional sources of individual voting behavior—namely: evaluations of government performance, personal characteristics of the candidates, economics, race, region, education, and social class. Interestingly, social science suggests that factors ranging from peer pressure and the desire to "fit in," to a candidate's physical attractiveness, are as likely to affect voters' decision-making as more traditional factors, like economic performance. But if we set such considerations aside and take Mr. Watts' conceptualization seriously, casting political ideology in terms of fundamental beliefs has consequences . . . 

In thinking about the "fallen world" and ideas of inherent goodness and evilness (to borrow Kyle Kate's phrasing), I am reminded of an article by Robert Wright published in the February 2015 edition of the New Yorker. Like Leonard's piece, Wright's article discussed a clash-of-values theory, albeit one of an international (rather than national) character.

In the early 1990s, political scientists spilled a lot of ink discussing the "Clash of Civilizations (COC)." Bernard Lewis first used the term in a 1990 article in The Atlantic, which sought to explain the perceived animosity toward America from the Muslim world. Lewis wrote:
. . . this hatred goes beyond hostility to specific interests or actions or policies or even countries and becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes. These are indeed seen as innately evil, and those who promote or accept them as the "enemies of God." (emphasis added)
Since the 1990s, of course, COC theory has gained quite a bit of traction; the idea that Muslims hate America on the basis of a fundamental "good-versus-evil" ideology is frequently bandied about as a hypothesis to explain the motivation for terrorism by Islamic extremists. (I will note that there is ample evidence suggesting the idea of generalized "Muslim rage" is, at best, simplistic and, at worst, untrue.) However, as Wright notes in his article, and as Trump surely understood in crafting his inauguration speech, describing any conflict as an ideological war of values packs a rhetorical punch. After all,
It's natural, when you're freaking out, to accept simple and dramatic, even melodramatic, explanations. It's a clash of civilizations!
For the sake of argument, let us make some assumptions. First, let us assume that Republicans and Democrats—rural ones especially, what with their "traditional American values" and "Puritan work ethics"—vote on the basis of beliefs about human nature. Let us also assume that such beliefs are fundamental. Ostensibly, such beliefs would by definition transcend economic, education, and class considerations—which might explain the discrepancies between the empirical metrics (referenced in Willie's post) and the resonance of Trump's inauguration rhetoric with the rural electorate. It would seem the logical extension of this line of reasoning is that voting patterns are set—pre-determined, even. If white rural evangelicals, for example, believe the Republican party reflects the worldview that humans are fundamentally bad, they would have voted for Trump (and will continue to vote along party lines) regardless of their economic fortunes and social circumstances. Can this possibly be true?

Here is what we know: Yes, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Yes, rural Americans voted overwhelmingly for Trump. And yes, rural populations are composed of evangelicals at a higher percentage than urban populations. Perhaps the alignment of this segment of the population is attributable to Trump's co-opting of the "fallen world." Perhaps rural Americans were swayed by apocalyptic discourse and the notion of a society trapped in sin. On the other hand, perhaps we—"we" referring to the collective consciousness that inevitably awakens to pick apart our political fate ex post facto—simply like to believe that Americans care about things like "good" and "evil." Perhaps we prefer to believe that Americans choose the candidate that they see as the good guy (even if we disagree with the choice).

In terms of what we know, it is also worth noting that:
To be clear, I am by no means suggesting rhetoric is an irrelevant piece of the political puzzle. Rather, I am suggesting the puzzle is a 1000+ piece jigsaw. In minimizing the relevance of economic and social factors, I worry that statements like Mr. Watts' miss a critical point: socioeconomics still matter.


Willie Stein said...

Great post, and I think this is a very accurate way to situate my discussion of the evangelical worldview in the context of larger voter behavior. To be quite clear, I don't think Trump's use of language familiar from evangelical talk about the "fallen world" was a primary driver in the behavior of his voters, and in fact, I doubt many among his voter base consciously recognized it. However, I think my goal was to discuss a sort of affinity between Trump's talk of a nation in decline with similar religious rhetoric. This affinity doesn't really require the voter to consciously recognize a connection, but acts as a kind of sub-rosa signal that the two discourses start from similar first principles.

One of the things that struck me about this election was the way the issues took a back seat-- discussion of policy was extremely limited. This meant that voters were not really able to evaluate the potential economic effects of each candidate. A candid evaluation of the economic effects of Trump's policies was not really available to those "feeling dour about the country's economic prospects" as the Gallup data suggests. I would suggest that such an environment brings psychological factors to the fore, including feelings that Trump is "speaking the voter's language" when he uses rhetoric familiar from other contexts.

Wynter K Miller said...

Absolutely — without a doubt, I agree that language certainly plays a role in voting behavior. My intention was only to proffer a "don't forget the forest in the trees" perspective. I had another thought also, reading your comment: are voters more vulnerable/receptive to rhetoric if certain other factors are also present (e.g., economic misfortune)? That is, if rural America were experiencing an economic boom right now, would Trump's rhetoric have had the same resonance with white rural evangelicals? If they were responding to an unconscious affinity for language consistent with religious rhetoric, the answer would seem to be "yes." It's fascinating.

In terms of my suggestion that those in rural America, including evangelicals, might have voted also on the basis of economics, your point is well taken. But even if candid evaluation of Trump's economic platform was unavailable, I think it very possible that voters might think something like "I feel negatively about the country's economic prospects now, so I'm going to vote for a political change." This would reflect a candid evaluation of Obama's economic effect, and a decision to voice disapproval of that effect via the vote — a sort of classic "throw the bastards out" approach.

K. Harrington said...

This was a great post and very thought-provoking. I too read Leonard's op-ed and upon first review, his arguments made a great deal of sense. In fact, his discussion about the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats (Republicans believing people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats believing people are fundamentally good) initially helped me reconcile some of my concerns about the election results. But after reading these posts and reviewing Leonard's piece again, I think his argument is a vast over-generalization about rural America. The diametrically opposed fundamental belief system that he proposes might explain the behavior of some Republican evangelicals, as Wynter suggests, but I find it hard to believe that the majority of Republican voters who voted for Trump truly believed he was a a savior-like figure who would save them from "the evils" of Democratic leaders.

It seems more likely, as Wynter suggests, that rural Republicans who voted for Trump were swayed, at least in part, by the evaluation of their own individual economic situation and that of their respective communities, ultimately reaching the conclusion that Trump was the "lesser of two evils."

Finally, I disagree with Leonard's assertion that white privilege is "meaningless and abstract" to many rural residents. This argument assumes that many rural residents don't value education and lack the eduction needed to be concerned with important issues. Although this many be true for some rural residents, Leonard reiterates the story often told in the media that portrays rural Americans as uneducated and uninformed.

Anne Badasci said...

Such a well thought out and interesting post! One of the things I have found myself dwelling on most since the election is this strong dichotomy between "us" and "them," in several senses. There's the traditional liberal versus conservative sentiment (which I do think was heightened during this particular election season), but this time around we also found ourselves in the curious position of dealing with much more pointed dichotomies, such as "Trump will make a great President because of his business acumen" versus "while there may be a place for business in the White House, it should not come at the cost of political experience and dedication to the Presidency as an office." In my 24 years of life, I can't remember ever feeling the nation this deeply, troublingly divided over so very many issues, and I think that's in large part because of the speed and force with which Trump is wielding his executive force. I think even the most ardent Trump opposers were not quite prepared for the level of ferocity that he would take office with, and concerned citizens now feel an urgency to take action, rather than a complacency to simply complain and hope for better in the future. Ultimately, I find myself fascinated on this new dichotomy between how divided we are, yet how much unity is shown in the face of that divisiveness (see: the instant reaction to the Muslim ban). I spoke about the "pendulum effect" with friends recently, and think (hope) this represents the furthest swing of the pendulum, and that having seen the extreme, we can band together come next election cycle to represent more moderate interests.

Kyle Kate Dudley said...
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Kyle Kate Dudley said...


I really appreciate your pushback to the tendency to oversimplify ideas of "good" and "evil" and your rejection of the assumption that Trump supporters’ ideological or religious worldviews are largely responsible for their political leanings. I found your unpacking of the real demographics of rural folks, of Evangelicals, and of political parties' constituents very informative and useful for continuing this great discussion.

I wonder, however, how this portion of the Leonard piece fits: "I thought, no wonder Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on things like gun control, regulations or the value of social programs. We live in different philosophical worlds, with different foundational principles." It seems to me that the political ideals do at least loosely follow this concept. It can perhaps be characterized as a dichotomy of optimism about personhood (people are good; therefore we should create welfare programs, trust the people in government to distribute taxes well, provide for medical care, etc.), vs. pessimism about personhood (people are to be feared and/or will take your job, government to be distrusted, and you might need more concealed-carries to fend off intruders). These trends don't seem solely borne of a religious (i.e. sinning and redemption) worldview vs. a secular worldview. It's more complicated than that, I feel. I'm not sure what the explanation is, but regardless of religious ideology, the political camps tend toward the above contrasting worldviews.

This is not to say that socioeconomic situations don't matter - they are a very important (I would argue more important than an ethereal and assumed ideology). However, the ideology question and the use of it as a political tactic remains. The Muslim Ban has tapped into the fear and "evil people" milieu of at least some people in our nation (as you mentioned), and so I think it's still a meaningful (albeit baffling) piece of the puzzle. Both the emotional and empirical seem to have contributed to this election cycle and to the current political jigsaw.

This was a wonderful post. Thank you!