Your Enemy is Your Best Teacher

My good friend Sarah Shugars is subtweeting me:

Resistance is a way of life, it’s a form a citizenship. It’s a commitment to speaking out and, importantly, creating space for others to speak out. It’s a bold declaration that all people are created equal and its an unequivocal call that we will not, cannot, rest until that equality is manifest is our society. Resistance comes in every word you say, every action you take.

I find this approach to civic life unhelpful, just as Shugars intended (her subtitle: “an unhelpful guide.”) I think we–we scholars who tackle the civic arena–ought to be able to give advice, and not simply advocate a life of unspecified restless action. Too often we study the politics of governments but we need to practice a different politics: of relationships and of institutions. But I don’t yet know what advice to give. I am still a little bit heeding the instructions: don’t just do something, sit there.

The activists have only changed the world. The point is to understand it.

The Dalai Lama has said that in the practice of tolerance, your enemy is your best teacher.” I suspect he meant something about love and difficulty, about how we must learn to tolerate those we truly disagree with and not those to whom we have grown accustomed. But here’s what I want to know: why can’t we actually learn from our opponents?

Republicans responded to the elections of both President Clinton and President Obama with radically obstructionist tactics. Remember? Special prosecutors, filibusters, impeachments, Benghazi, endless attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, budget showdowns, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, refusing to hold hearings or approve nominees at every level.

They played constitutional hardball, and won. Maybe Democrats should try that. 

I imagine someone will say that it works better for the party that claims to oppose government than the party that supports it. But in public, they’d simply say they were opposed to the policy X, not ALL government. We’re about to see that they believed that, too: the federal government is not about to suddenly shrink so small it can be drowned in a bath tub. They’ll cut taxes and spend profligately like they’ve done since Ronald Reagan “proved” that deficits don’t matter. Republicans haven’t been afraid to contradict themselves, which meant lots of bad soundbites for Jon Stewart to satirize, but kept spelling electoral success. A lot of what made the GOP so effective over the past eight years was running out the clock with nonsense and using pre-commitment strategies to win various games of policy chicken.

I imagine someone will say that the Democrats don’t have a single house of Congress in which to stage these obstructions. That’s how the GOP felt in 2009. Yet 2010 is widely recognized as their crowning achievement. They founded the Tea Party to oppose themselves, and gerrymandered themselves a longterm majority.

So why not try that? What do we have to lose, control of government?

There is, unfortunately, an objection I can imagine someone could raise: the problem with chicken is that someone has to be willing to swerve. If both sides play constitutional hardball then we will fall into Juan Linz’s nightmare of constitutional crisis. The likely result of conflicts between a popular president and an unpopular congress will be a weaker legislature and a stronger executive branch. So there is something to lose, and that is the lesson: winning policy victories does not tame the prince, when the prince has a clear mandate from the people. Knowing that this is a possible fate makes thinking through such scenarios important, and it makes informed guides to strategy and action valuable as well.

So as I said on November 9th, it is a good time to ask me to make future commitments of help and support. Tell me what you plan and what you need and how I can help.

Race, Income, and Elections: The White (Male?) Working Class

In my last post before the election, I quibbled with Peter Levine’s strategic argument that Trump’s supporters might be momentarily richer than average, but only because they were older, maler, and whiter. I worried that it was a kind of mistake, even if it’s perhaps an analytic effort designed to enhance our ability and willingness to achieve strategic ends. Since the surprising election results last week, many more people are returning to questions about the working class, and specifically the “white working class.” I have been trying to think about this for a while, and I’m still coming up short.

So I’m returning to that argument, especially given his follow-up, “To beat Trump, invest in organizing:”

Meanwhile, we also need organizations in red states and red counties, in rural areas and exurbs. The point of organizing there is not to show empathy to Trump voters or to honor their concerns. The point is to win. Particularly in 2018, anti-Trump votes will be very poorly distributed–far too concentrated in the great cities to win the House and Senate back. Every extra vote in a white non-urban county will matter, and that requires organizations to change minds, to empower the disenfranchised, and to offer real benefits. By the way, although I think the Democratic Party is a necessary component of the opposition, it is not sufficient. Electing or reelecting responsible and caring Republicans in red districts is also essential.

This is very much of a piece with what he wrote before the election, when he tried to distinguish the strategic argument from the analytic one (emphasis mine):

If you have no organizations behind you, you’ll typically feel powerless. If that’s how you feel, you are unlikely to want to participate in a difficult conversation, make sacrifices and tradeoffs, acknowledge any unfair advantages, or negotiate. Again, to use Trump voters as an example: they are overwhelmingly White, and it would be appropriate for them to acknowledge White privilege when issues of racial injustice arise. But I think they are very unlikely to acknowledge their own privilege, let alone agree to concessions, as long as their overwhelming experience is one of powerlessness. And I think they are powerless if they are unorganized and represented only by unaccountable celebrities. This implies, by the way, that one of the most important tasks confronting us today is organizing the White working class.

Just who is the white working class? Levine defines it as white people without college degrees working blue collar jobs and living in counties with increasing white male mortality. This is remarkably precise, and perhaps it does indicate a set of shared interests that must be organized. And yet…

Depending on the way of measuring, as few as 1/5 of workers or as many as 2/3 of workers are in the working class. When economists use the term, it gets precisely defined, but then glossed by others in a confusing way. Are all jobs that don’t require a college degree blue collar? Does the working class include the service sector, or manufacturing only? Are we talking about all non-agricultural low skill manual labor? What about medium- and high-skill manual labor? That variation from 23% of workers to 66% of workers provides a massive opportunity for equivocation, and suggests that the term is well beyond anything that tracks a specific group. It reminds me of the way we talk about the “middle-class,” with precise definitions on offer in such variety that almost anyone can find one that they fit. With that much equivocation, the term lends itself to rhetorical manipulation or propaganda. 

But the most important question is this: why “white?” Why assume that–whatever the working class is–its interests are racialized? I wonder to what extent the “White Working Class” formulation merely reproduces the actual racism of a group of people who share thereby share a sense a pride and solidarity even if their material interests are not always aligned. Something that can be a social identity, a racial identity, and a class identity all at once.

I don’t fully know where I stand as I watch the dizzying play of free association. Just because a concept is ideological doesn’t mean it doesn’t call out a group of people who are interpellated by it and then cathect it themselves. Just the opposite, I think: we imbue arbitrary conceptual constellations with meaning in order to make our world liveable and loveable.

And there’s a triptych of books out recently trying to figure this out: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Land.

Each picks up a different group, but in the first and last case I don’t know if they would fit the standard Labor Department’s classification of the blue collar worker. The Politics of Resentment does, though: using Wisconsin rural and exurban voters whose work is primarily physical and does not require a college degree, but are well-enough paid that they’d qualify as middle-class, yet have not seen their standards of living increase. This group in particular found Barack Obama’s campaign initially promising yet soured when he made comments about them clinging to God and guns. After years of field work, Kathy Cramer diagnoses three causes of their resentment:

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.

So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

This makes some sense: everyone wants power, money, and respect! These are the three hands: the invisible hand of the market, the intangible hand of esteem, and the iron hand of state coercion. And yet everyone always feels as if they are getting the back of these hands to some extent.

I still worry that this analysis makes a mistake about the relationship between race and class in support of a strategic point. To what extent is there a group of people called the “white working class” that is particularly injured by the ways that the political economy is organized? Remember that my position is that we ought to be wary about racialized organizations of white people. Indeed, I followed Arendt in worrying that the primary form of organization towards which such a group would be prone would be a racist or imperialistic one. That is, it’s precisely the effort to organize the disorganized that creates a populist nationalism. But this is not a popular view!

Yet this is a mainstay of American demographics: we cannot understand our country easily through income or education unless we add the racial coefficient. Once we’ve demographically controlled for race, only class remains:

[This conclusion] requires us to divvy up the working class into whites and non-whites. Having done this, we then find that non-white working class members strongly support Hillary Clinton, and white working class members strongly support Donald Trump. Thus something called “social class” predicts candidate support!

I still think this is right. That is, we can’t fruitfully rebut claims about race by dividing the working class into racial groups. It’s certainly true that these groups live and work in different places and may well have different cultures, although I do think that the Black Jeopardy SNL sketch captured something impressive about their shared outlooks:

Yet that’s quite clearly not enough to justify the overall claim that they belong to the same class. To do that, one has to ignore race. For instance, Levine concludes that:

[I]f class means social status, and status involves occupation and education, then Trump voters tend to be downscale Whites in downscale White areas.

Here’s what best predicted Trump support before the election: occupation, education, mortality level, gender, and age. Trump’s voters tend to be blue collar, to lack a college degree, and to live in those counties driving the white lifespan downward. Yet none of these explains Trump support as well as race. And indeed, after the election we have reason (although we must be careful of exit polls) to believe that whites with college degrees joined less educated whites to support Trump!

It’s clearly true that many of Trump’s voters are “downscale” compared to other whites. But they are equally “upscale” compared to non-whites. So the extent to which we can accept the class analysis of their support is the extent to which we can both assume whiteness (to capture the group that is not African-American and Latino and supports Clinton) and erase that whiteness. That’s the extent to which there is a group of people with a distinct class interest we can call “the white working class,” preserving and erasing whiteness at once. So what worries me is that we seem–for strategic reasons I mostly share–to want to make white nationalism not about race.

After all, by analyzing away their whiteness we miss one of their primary concerns: the relative loss of prestige associated with older white males.

I feel like I am being uncharitable to Levine and other class-first analysts of this election cycle, so let me ask some questions that might help me understand the position:

  1.  Are there non-strategic reasons to analyze the white working class separately from the non-white working class? For instance: in presidential elections, poor white voters vote in much higher numbers than poor Black and Latino voters. They seem more like white people than like poor people. Why does cutting the working class at the racial joint seem so smooth to you (and not to me)? Can you help me see my error?
  2. Is there a sense in which the white working class really is worse off than their incomes suggest? We often talk about this group’s recent surprising decline in lifespan, and I would add that they are uniquely threatened by the new college credentialism craze. But the white working class lifespan is still higher than for non-whites of the same class (or even much higher classes!) Perhaps the loss of status is measurably worse the the perpetual lack of it is: certainly non-whites have more optimism than whites in this income group.
  3. Put simply: is the racial division of the working class warranted? Can we cut the pie into racial pieces without eliminating our ability to rebut racial resentment explanations?

One last thing: since I wrote my last post, I have read this very interesting Monkey Cage post on research by Wayne, Valentino, and Oceno supporting the claim that sexism (and anger) is a better explanation of Trump support than racism (and fear.) Here’s a Vox gloss of the study. Though the Monkey Cage post is older, I had already been thinking about this because of the work of the philosopher Kate Manne (here, here, and here, for instance).

I think it’s difficult to see whether sexism causes voters to support Trump or Trump support causes voters to become more sexist. That is: how many of these misogynistic voters would vote for the Democrat if the Republicans had selected a woman candidate? It’s notable that sexist voters strongly preferred Romney to Obama in 2012, though less so than they prefer Trump. So it could be that when a man runs against a woman, sexists support the man, or it could just be that sexists tend to vote Republican. The fact that sexists are more likely to support Trump than Romney suggests the former. But there’s a third possibility: when a woman runs, her opponents become more sexist. They reach for reasons to oppose her, as we all do when we have a position to defend, and in a misogynistic culture the reasons closest to hand will tend to be gendered, misogynistic ones.

Explainer Journalism Needs Better Explanations

Corey Robin got some nice jabs in at the current class of younger non-academic pundits a while back:

A lot of these pundits and reporters are younger, part of the Vox generation of journalism. Unlike the older generation of journalists, whose calling card was that they know how to pick up a phone and track down a lead, the signature of this younger crew is that they know their way around J-STOR.

He went on to diagnose the the current generation as ahistorical positivists who read too much economics and not enough history. I have a different explanation: bad social science journalism, a breed of the general problem of bad science journalism.

Some people–perhaps even some journalists–seem to think of explanation as a fundamentally neutral recounting of facts, not something that can have formal conditions or persuasive interests. But explanations are arguments, too. And sometimes explanations fail because the premises don’t have the right relationship to the conclusions: though no explanatory argument is valid in the logical sense, some are much stronger than others.

Very often our chosen explanations are meant to convince us of something quite apart from a causal account of how an event occurred. We don’t read the newspaper: we get our news from TED talks, op-eds, comedian newscasters, and  “explainer” journalism. And in that space, explanations often follows the form, “Y is a surprising reason for X. But Y also implies that we ought to care more about Z.” In that case, the “explainer” quite often cares much more about Y and Z. X is merely a reason to climb onto their favorite hobby horse.

Much of what gets billed in headlines as an explanation of “hows” and “whys” actually fails some of the basic rules we teach in inductive logic about inference to the best explanation. As a fan of the Vox-ification of media, I need to be reminded of this myself sometimes.

Inference to the best explanation has simple rules: all things being equal, it counts in favor of an explanation that there is some new piece of evidence that could falsify it; all things being equal, it counts in favor an explanation that it can explain more than just the single set of facts we see before us. It’s also better to avoid multiplying metaphysical entities beyond need, and to preserve as many of our pre-existing beliefs as possible. What’s more, explanations should not jump to conclusions or overclaim beyond what the evidence can support.

Regressions are not Explanations

I’m all for data journalism, but I think there is a particularly dangerous version of it that equates a regression with an explanation. One kind of explanation is a causal one, and we can often test causality using concomitant variation. We can ask: if a sick person takes the drug, do they get well? Then we can add some math and ask: are they more likely to get well than a person who didn’t take the drug? That’s statistics in a very small nutshell.

But there’s a big problem in applying these case-control methods to demographic information: we often can’t vary the big social factors while holding all else equal. So we approximate. We try to use the sheer morass of human variation to uncover independent variables that predict changes. This has led to a lot of really cool math to produce real cool studies that show that some variable predicts another variable with high confidence… while only predicting a very small part of the variation. Gee whiz!

Consider a pie that has been carefully segmented into different flavors: shoefly, sweet potato, apple, cherry, blueberry, and many others the bakers have left as a surprise. What a lot of social science regressions do is try to carefully slice out one of the sections of that pie to figure out its specific flavor. As a part of their analysis, they prove that they can say with near-certitude (high confidence interval!) that they’ve gotten nearly every crumb of the Key Lime section. What does that tell us about the rest of the pie?

Well, anyone who likes pie can tell you this: gobbling the piece completely without any crumbs doesn’t mean you’ve eaten the whole pie. I talk a lot more about low R2 R-squared values in the famous study of American oligarchy here, but this is the upshot: if there’s a lot of variability in outcomes, as you would expect in a big population of wonderfully weird, defiantly diverse, and polymorphously-perverse human beings like us Americans, and you have a very strong predictor of a very small part of that variability, you do not have an explanation of the whole thing. You do not understand the whole of America! You have that very accurate predictor of the small piece, you haven’t necessarily gotten any insight into the whole population thereby. The part–which has been carefully defined by its difference from the whole–bears no necessary or predictable relation to whole.

Donald Trump: A Case Study of Stymied Explanation

Take Donald Trump’s nomination: there’s a lot to be said for his extraordinary candidacy. A man without any political experience has been nominated by one of the United States’ two major parties, on a platform that has very little clarity and against at least one dynasty candidate within his party and several other establishment favorites. How could this happen?

I don’t think I can definitively answer that question, but I think there are two major candidate explanation types:

  1. One kind of explanation comes from the wellspring resentments, of which we have an increasing supply. Whites are angry at their loss of prestige. Workers are angry at the support both parties give to millionaires and bankers. As we saw with the Brexit vote, these voters seem to be willing to spite themselves and destroy their own prospects if it’ll frustrate elites. And rage over growing inequality and bank bailouts might need to find some outlet, even a destructive one.
  2. Another kind of explanation is that as we grow wealthier, we can afford more irrationality. It’s the rich who forgo vaccines. Safe and moderate and establishment-vetted candidates are sort of like vaccinations against bad outcomes. So as we grow richer, we become more tempted to forgo them.

I believe that most of the efforts to explain Trump fall into these categories: we’re sometimes told that we can blame Trump on the current president’s competence, for instance. Or perhaps we can blame elites who failed to respond to the financial crisis with sufficient punitiveness, as Andrew Sullivan alleged.

In journalism, though, it is more common to emphasize and sub-divide the first sort of explanation: Trump is either explained by racial resentment or by economic anxiety. (Note that both are Vox links!)

White Supremacy

If your first explanation of the Trump phenomenon is “white racism,” then it’s quite likely that we’d get along well. That’s the standard answer in most of my social network. But it basically can’t be a complete explanation: the United States has been a white supremacist country since its founding. Racism is literally written into our Constitution, and certainly structures all of our major institutions. Yet Trump’s nomination represents an unprecedented event in the US, unheralded by our history. The best precedents seem to be European nationalist parties like the UK Independence Party and the French National Front, where parliamentary politics makes such a minority view easier to advance at the national level. So we need to give an account of what has changed here to make his success possible.

A story that makes a bit more sense is to call this revanchist white supremacy. Some people really are enraged that we have a Black man as president. What’s more, some people are better able to articulate their other grievances when the President is a Black man, just as when one of the candidates is a woman the sheer efficacy of misogynistic tropes in our culture makes it difficult to avoid them. (I think in particular the trust gap with Hillary Clinton is alarming; she is one of the most honest candidates ever, and seems to have a lot of difficulty dissembling even when an easy lie would benefit her. Yet out culture’s misogynistic mistrust of women pins her to some mythical deceitfulness while her husband–a perjurer!–gets a pass.)

Possibly it makes sense to say that Trump’s candidacy is better understood not as anti-Black racism, the sort that structures our country, but as anti-immigrant racism and also of Islamophobia. But it was only a decade ago that George W. Bush was insisting that we not blame Islam for terrorism. And the hatred that Trump and his supporters show for Latino immigrants is particularly notable because it’s the one thing in which establishment Republican politicians struggled to join him: they know they can’t afford to alienate Latinos. It’s the one policy plank which he has held clearly and unambiguously from the start, and it’s the most obvious contrast with his rivals.

But could it be that anti-immigrant nationalism–a kind of racism–explains Trump’s ascendancy? That, too, seems unlikely. Immigration has been on the decline for more than a decade.

PH_2015-09-28_immigration-through-2065-09If immigration peaked in 2005, then any explanation of current discomforts would require us to believe that it has taken people more than a decade to realize it was a problem. And let me be clear: there’s almost no evidence that it has been a problem in aggregate.

But it has been a problem for the segment of the population who are also voting for Trump. The anti-imigration story is usually associated with the effect that low-skill immigrants have on the labor market participation of low-skill American workers. So anti-immigrant attitudes can understood as partly an economic concern, and these could partly motivate Trump’s supporters.

The Trumpenproletariat

Since I’ve been writing about superfluousness lately, you will not be surprised to hear that I worry that there is a superfluousness explanation available here. Low-skill immigrants put particular pressure on the low skill workers who are only marginally attached to the workforce. So it is reasonable for them to fear that they will be undercut by undocumented workers who can undercut their wage requirements. But there’s an inconvenient fact that this explanation must negotiate: Trump’s supporters have a much higher average household income than most Americans, and certainly higher than any of the Democratic candidates. The median Republican primary voter who picked Trump reported a household income of $72,000 per year. (The median American household income is $56,000.)

With such a high income, it seems unlikely that his support is primarily drawn from within the lumpen proletariat, that counter-revolutionary group that Marx described in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

That’s not Trump’s supporters. If income is any guide to one’s role in the economy, then his voters are significantly less “superfluous” than either Clinton’s or Sanders’ supporters. But this is comparing apples and oranges. How can we understand this income gap?

  1. Trump’s supporters are, first, voters. Poor people don’t vote in the same numbers as the middle-class and rich, so we should expect (and find) that voters have higher median household incomes than non-voters.
  2. Trump’s supporters are Republicans. And Republican voters just are richer than Democratic voters. Trump’s supporters are still the poorest of the bunch: Cruz’s voters were about the same, while both Kasich and Rubio had median household incomes more than $10,000 higher. (Kasich’s supporters had a median of $91k; Rubio’s supporters had a median of $88k.) But we have to be careful here: Republicans are richer because they are whiter and older than Democrats.
  3. Trump’s supporters tend not to have college degrees. Thus even if they are currently employed, they’re experiencing a decline in their prospects under our new credential economy.
  4. Trump’s supporters come from poor places where the lifespan is decreasing. I still think this is the single best explanation of this pie-slicing sort: lifespans decreased for a certain population in the first time in modern history, and at roughly the same time, those groups chose a surprising candidate.

That’s why I associate Trump with the superfluous ones. Yet it’s important to recognize that his supporters are experiencing relative and not absolute impoverishment: they are worse off than they were, but not worse of than the Muslims, immigrants, and African-Americans they seem to despise. That loss of status may be a better indicator of how surpluses turn into superfluousness than any other; immigrants aren’t at all useless, they’re too busy being exploited! Thus racism still is a very relevant part of the story.

Against Epistocracy

It’s notable how uniform the establishment reaction to Trump has been: ordinarily measured newspapers and even conservative magazines have lined up against him in large numbers. Pundits and wonks see him as a threat to democracy and the rule of law, which is highly inflated rhetoric infrequently applied to major party presidential candidates. So how could he have won his party’s nomination, and seem to have such a good chance of winning the presidency? (Though perhaps not SO good a chance?)

It may seem that Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric has forced the chattering class to respond in kind. But in fact, elites have been speaking in apocalyptic terms for a while now. My readers are mostly academics, so they will be able to immediately recall the long list of threats to democracy: wealth inequality, the failure of campaign finance reform, the growth of long-term unemployment, the coming entitlements crisis, mass incarceration, police brutality, de-industrialization, racism, multiculturalism, presidential overreach, climate change, epistocracy, automation, etc. Perhaps one or a few of these threats did fundamentally break democracy?

Or perhaps it’s the establishment itself that has become too uniform, that has begun to substitute both its factual and moral judgment for an honest consultation of the will of the people. As a member of that credentialied elite, I’m generally sympathetic to this. But the major problem with the rule of credentialed elites is three-fold:

  1. Even those who tend to get the right answer may still be wrong, but overconfident errors tend to be more costly.
  2. Experts have a tendency to speak beyond their legitimate expertise.
  3. Experts can self-deal in ways that are difficult for non-experts to detect, and indeed they have managed to claw back most of the shared gains from their expertise.

An additional problem might be that the rule of expertise is only considered legitimate insofar as it doesn’t lead to undemocratic control of policy. By creating invidious comparisons among citizens, elite rule creates a class of superfluous men and women who must live with the constant reference to our democratic culture while recognizing that they are excluded from it. They are thus living their lives at the point of conflict between principle and practice, the contradiction between rhetoric and lived experience, much like African-Americans in the US, who must constantly hear our lip service about racial equality in its practical absence.

We live in a time of self-government limited by many forces, but the most relevant force most Americans experience is the way that their projects and desires are hamstrung by wonks and nerds. It’s not usually the very wealthy who tell us what to do. It’s usually an upper-middle-class professional: a lawyer, a doctor, perhaps an engineer or a psychologist.

In almost every case, it was ultimately a college-certified teacher or professor who put and end to a person’s dreams and alienated them from credentialed elites; if that didn’t happen–as it is unlikely to have permanently done for any of my readers–then you’re more likely to find yourself within the top thirty or forty percent of incomes and influence. Teachers put up walls to success in our economy.

The White Working Class

My friend Peter Levine argues that the data supports the supposition that low social class explains Trump support. One odd thing about this finding is that it requires us to divvy up the working class into whites and non-whites. Having done this, we then find that non-white working class members strongly support Hillary Clinton, and white working class members strongly support Donald Trump. Thus something called “social class” predicts candidate support!

I have ample evidence that Peter is smarter than me. But I just don’t see how he has come to this conclusion. It seems to me that he is saying that white supremacy cannot be an explanation, because poor white people support Trump and poor Black people don’t. Yet Peter is well-aware that one of the key components of white supremacy is the weaponization of the poor, the idea that preserving the social privileges of whiteness can allow elites to prevent working class consolidation.

So I have to ask: in this conception of social class, is it the “social” or the “class” doing the work? I understand the strategic point Levine is making, that the best response to superfluousness is organization, and this even applies to poor whites tempted by white supremacy. I am sympathetic to that point even though I’ve argued that:

we should not hope for 100% political participation, at least insofar as that requires that white supremacists and chauvinists find viable politicians who will court them openly.

Probably we can and will come to rapprochement on the strategic issue, since there are alternate, non-supremacist ways for those groups to organize. But it seems to me that his enthusiasm for participation has led him into an analytic error. Give that he is much smarter than me, I’m sure I’ll turn out to be wrong about this… but I must wait to hear the correction before I’m convinced.

The Null Hypothesis: Incompetence and Fear

In explanations, it’s important to give the null hypothesis its due. Sometimes no particular thing had a strong effect on an outcome: sometimes the best explanation is chance, bad luck, or incompetence. And I think all three play a role in Trump’s rise. In particular, the Republican Party failed to seize on a “better” candidate during the crucial early states because too many of them were pledged to Jeb Bush. Long after Bush ceased to be viable, they couldn’t coordinate around an alternative for fear of offending his family. And with so many candidates, and no room for backroom deals, elections become chaotic; they fail to choose the person that most people would prefer (the Condorcet winner).

Yet I have come to believe that the best guide to his rapid ascendance is not some statistic but what he says. To me he looks overwrought, bombastic, and silly. Yet he regularly draws larger crowds than my lectures, so maybe he’s on to something. Why is this rhetoric so effective?

One thing that unifies much of the the US is the sense that there are major threats left unaddressed. We see constant reports of terrorist attacks, police shootings, and mass shootings that target both civilians and law enforcement. We live in a time of unprecedentedly low crime, and yet the news seems to be full of criminal atrocities. No institution feels legitimate any longer; we have one of the most upstanding presidents in modern history, and yet he is regularly de-legitimized in the rhetoric of both the left and the right. (And I too can think of dozens of reasons but the criticisms have grown faster than the reasons.)

So my suspicion is that the best explanation of Trump is simply that he is able to mobilize our fears–well “our” fears–not mine, but the ones that trouble our culture. It remains to be seen whether “our” fears are truly irrational; I think that they are. But we should think of Trump as running to be the Commander-in-Chief for the ongoing Global War on Terror.

If this is right, describing Trump as racist is irrelevant. His primary appeal is as a strongman, a defender against terror; racism is irrelevant except insofar as it helps to identify the source of the threats against which he’ll defend us. His strongman appeal is bolstered by its disconnection to any actual strength. It almost seems to be helped by its association with with his remarkably fragile ego.

Now, here’s the thing: citing terrorism as the main explanation for such a complicated rise is indeed a “surprising explanation” of the sort I warned against above. I am coming very close to reiterating a debunked theory of Trump, that his supporters are more “authoritarian” than other voters. The counter-narrative is that Trump’s supporters are… nationalist populists, proud to be American and cynical about elites. But in this excellent recent piece, James Kwak captured part of the problem with this sort of analysis:

Racism isn’t a virus that falls out of the sky. It’s the product of historical contexts. I can’t prove that today’s heightened racism results from the Great Recession, although it seems perfectly plausible to me. But by the same token, saying “It’s racism!” doesn’t preclude the role of economic factors in making that racism attractive.

Similarly, mistaken feelings of poverty and vulnerability (among a relatively stable and wealthy group) isn’t a virus that falls out of the sky: it doesn’t preclude the possibility that nationalism and the hatred of the currently non-white and likely forthcoming non-male President-as-elite-representative cause those feelings of nationalism–racism by another name–and and misogyny–which is what hatred of elites looks like when it’s at home.

So I suspect that it helps to spell out a useful understanding of Trump’s appeal, not at the margins but for the mass: they are actually quite safe, and yet they don’t feel safe: they feel vulnerable, fragile, and in need of protection. This makes him a great candidate to run against a hawkish Secretary of State–because she is a woman and cannot so easily play “strong man” in our subconscious.

For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.


Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.