We live in a strange world nowadays, don’t you think? If you are older than three years old, when long-term memory begins to form, you’d be hard-pressed to remember a time when the unreality of “alternative facts” was legitimized as reality. Barefaced lying? It’s just a matter of ‘style’ claim his hapless defenders. When all of the national intelligence bodies essentially labeled the president’s assertion of wiretapping his phones by former President Obama a lie, his approval rating in the tracking Gallup poll went up by 3 points. Are we in an Alice in Wonderland world with the Mad Hatter in charge?
Hoodwinking millions of people who are about to lose their safety net, their healthcare, even their daily food (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps”, is slated for brutal reductions and Community development block grants that help fund some of the nation’s 5,000 Meals on Wheels groups is slated for elimination altogether)—and they are still true believers! How could that be?
The science of evolution has been taught in schools for decades, yet polling consistently shows that 73% of Americans believe that humans were created by a supernatural force (42% directly by God, 31% through His guiding hand) in the past 10,000 years. What about climate change? The people of Oklahoma are subjected to annually worsening unprecedented tornadoes, yet they keep electing senator Inhofe who famously said in the Senate that global warming is a hoax, and his party elected him to chair the Environmental committee…
What is wrong with this picture? How can we make sense of the nonsense?
Social scientists take a stab
I came across an article in Science sporting the seductive title “Why I know but don’t believe” and couldn’t resist. The article is a commentary on another article, in the same issue of Science, which tries to create models of networks to explain how some beliefs within groups persist in the face of social pressure, whereas others change and, by changing, influence a cascade of other beliefs.
The work is using arcane “network theory” to explain, for instance, how people changed their mind about the Iraq war once confronted with evidence that there were no WMD in Iraq. Good try, in my humble opinion. But it fails to explain a more intractable problem: The hardcore of “true believers” simply changed the narrative; the war was justified, because…(fill in the blanks: Saddam was a merciless despot, Saddam had a cache of chemical weapons and gassed his own people, etc.)—all justifying the original belief that we should have gone in and toppled the SOB.
So what explains the “hardcore”?
It’s all in your head, say the psychologists
Every person has a view of the world, and it is deeply rooted. We fiercely resist any attempt, either by outside forces or through introspection, to make any significant change to it. It has to do with the way we think. There are two modes of thinking. The fast one (system 1) operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. The slow one (system 2) allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.
System 1 is existential. We are born to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear snakes and spiders. Some learned ideas and skills also operate on the intuitive level of system 1. We don’t have to compute what is 2+2—it comes automatically. Likewise, if you grew up in an environment where certain modes of behavior are the norm, to change its hold on you would take a radical change of that environment and heroic efforts on your part.
The world of Joe Six-Pack
Maybe now we are better equipped to understand the baffling observation that Trump supporters are totally unmoved by his outrageous behavior. Let me correct, they seem to tactually relish it—to wit, his rise in the tracking poll in the face of a barrage of lies and a mysterious Russian connection.
It is said that a budget is not merely a bunch of numbers; it is an ideological statement. I am quoting here David Brooks, one of the few remaining principled Republicans who was pondering why “Bannonism” is being abandoned:
“The Third possibility is that Donald Trump doesn’t really care about domestic policy; he mostly cares about testosterone.
He wants to cut any part of government that may seem soft and nurturing, like poverty programs. He wants to cut any program that might seem emotional and airy-fairy, like the National Endowment for the Arts. He wants to cut any program that might seem smart and nerdy, like the National Institutes of Health.
But he wants to increase funding for every program that seems manly, hard, muscular, and ripped, like the military and armed antiterrorism programs.
Indeed, the Trump budget looks less like a political philosophy and more like a sexual fantasy. It lavishes attention on every aspect of hard power and slashes away at anything that isn’t.”
This, I think, comes as close to a bull’s eye diagnosis of Trump’s aberrant behavior as I have seen. And, I can see how the world of Joe Six-Pack resonates with it. Can you see the hillbillies in J.D. Vance’s world discuss Russian attempts to undermine our democracy? When your world is bounded by the city limits of your hometown, your worldview may well be shaped in the local pub. As Vance describes it, it is a world dominated by working-class white men (and women) who brawl at the slightest perceived provocation, settle disputes by brute force, and admire power.
So how do you get through to them?
A couple of days ago my wife sent me this email:
“I hear on the news that a Trump voter said after being asked about the report’s findings (about the Republican health care plan): ‘Yeah I am pissed off, but I am pissed off at my wife too and we are still together.’”
To which my friend, Michael Millenson, sent the perfect rejoinder:
“Yes, but what if she told him it’s now going to take a dinner twice as expensive before she has sex with him—and it will still be 20% less often. But the good news is: They both have greater freedom!”
To which my wife responded, “Yeah, and they also have choice and access!”
But when the laughter dies down, you realize the profound insight of this joke. Psychologists, social scientists, communication experts, PR mavens, political pundits—all tried and failed to reach the less-educated, angry white male. Here it is, in plain view, spoken in terms that they can understand and relate to. With such plain-spoken, earthy metaphors, you can explain the most complex, knotty issues. Bill Clinton’s political genius was rooted in it. Bernie Sanders had no difficulty distilling the issues into understandable concepts. It makes me wonder,
Are there any down to earth, plain-spoken, authentic politicians left in the Democratic party?