Instead of Stereotyping Trump Voters, Progressives need to Get them Back

By George Lakey | ( Waging Nonviolence ) | – –

In ordinary times, progressives might get away with casual images of their political opponents, but these are not ordinary times. 


If these were ordinary times, progressives might get away with casual images of our political opponents. Those who disagree “lack information,” or “remain prejudiced,” or are “gripped by an emotion like hate.” Reassured, we can return to informational outreach or protests or confrontations and hope that makes a difference.

These, however, are not ordinary times. I further expect more instability and turbulence to come in the United States, a situation that invites more strategizing. And having a good strategy requires more accurate images of the other players in the arena.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book “Strangers in Their Own Land” has arrived just in time. Her writing gives us an in-depth picture of middle- and working-class members of the Tea Party, the foot soldiers of the Republican right. In particular, she reports on Southern Louisiana, chosen for its right-wing politics combined with the devastating impact of capitalism. Louisiana is at or near the bottom of the states in education, health and other measures of general well-being. Its people endure an environment highly degraded by the petrochemical industry.

Hochschild immerses herself in participation in social activities as well as home interviews. She doesn’t hide her teaching job at Berkeley and left politics, but by networking her way through trusted intermediaries and using her people skills she learns how locals see the world and themselves in it. A gifted writer, she invites us into that world, and surprises us with the diversity of their self-perceptions.

‘You have to take the bad with the good.’

Hochschild interviews people whose health, livelihood, and families have been hurt by irresponsible corporate behavior and the refusals to help by bought-off elected officials. Nevertheless, those same people defend capitalism and advocate for Republicans who oppose environmental and safety regulations. She finds four subgroups of Tea Party supporters, each subgroup having what Hochschild calls a “deep story” that makes meaning of their politics and distinguishes them from the people who have the same demographics but support liberal Democrats.

Just this chance to go beyond stereotypes we may have about Trump supporters is reason enough to read the book. (Class stereotypes are not really better than stereotypes based on race or sexuality.) In addition, I learned much that suggests how to strengthen our work.

Among the subgroups – Team Player, Worshipper, Cowboy, and Rebel – there is a recurrent bit of folk wisdom that I first heard from my dad: “You have to take the bad with the good.” If, for example, you believe that the only route to an abundance of jobs is to accept the downside of fracking, then it only makes sense in a job-hungry state to encourage the fracking industry to settle in Louisiana and to fight the threat posed by the federal environmental fanatics in the EPA.

The habitual left activist approach to disagreement, say about fracking, is to add more reasons against it. Hochschild helps us to understand why that approach is so often frustrating. She shows us how the “deep story” of each subgroup, reinforced by personal, lived experience, proves more compelling to its members than the pro’s and con’s of a particular issue. The piling up of reasons why fracking is bad is of very limited value. Hochschild’s description matches my own experience: Their frame of reference already allows for fracking’s down side. “We just need to take the bad with the good.”

In other words, right-wingers don’t really come to a new issue freshly, to judge “on the merits.” (Most of us don’t, either.) They start with a frame of reference that strongly pre-judges the outcome. Their starting point makes them distant from us on the “spectrum of allies,” a tool increasingly used for campaign strategizing.

In ordinary times, liberals might not care about the lower middle- and working-class part of the right wing. Why meet them on the level of frame of reference—of “big picture”—when Clintonian incrementalism has been working just fine? Hammer out compromises on particular points of policy, as was done with Obamacare, and over time we’ll see our country move ahead.

These, however, are not ordinary times, and even liberals might go beyond old habits and learn to play a bigger game. The bigger game means engaging with a larger part of America than before, including workers with Democratic roots who get written off as “misled.” It means meeting them not only by arguing single issues, but by going to their frame of reference itself.

What kind of big picture does the job?

The kind of big picture progressives love is analysis. We like to conceptualize the causes of, systemic faults with, structures of pollution, money in politics, war, poverty, misogyny, racism, class domination, etc. It’s clear, however—as Hochschild shows through political discussions and dialogues among Tea Party people—that they already have a big picture analysis that satisfies them.

What they lack, however, is a big picture vision. Their substitute is to look to the past, the good old days of community, mutual support, a sense of place and continuity. They feel angry and grieve, knowing the past is rapidly fading, but have no alternative vision to reach toward. Ayn Rand’s vision is not theirs, however popular it may be among rich right-wingers.

Hochschild hints at a possible vision for lower middle- and working-class people on the right. She points out that Norway has about the same population as Louisiana, and it is also an oil state. Without tying either place to oil in the long term, she uses Norway to illustrate a systematically different approach that affords Norwegians a healthy environment, more individual freedom than most people in Louisiana enjoy, and far more security and shared prosperity.

For Tea Party adherents who can easily bat away progressives’ arguments for this or that individual policy, an alternative vision that delivers more of their values than free market capitalism is a different discussion altogether. They see themselves as immensely practical—far more than “hippy idealists” found in enclaves such as Berkeley. What, then, to make of the practicality of a Norwegian system that has outperformed Louisiana (and the United States) on economic well-being for over 60 years?

And for job-hungry states, please note that—even before the oil began to flow—Norwegians maintained full employment. Hochschild found that her middle- and working-class Tea Party friends reverence work. Norway has a higher percentage of its population in the labor force than does the United States.

Norway is not a ‘welfare state —the misnomer that prevents dialogue.

In the United States, there is a linguistic trap with terrible political consequences, and not only in Louisiana. Americans commonly believe that the Nordic “welfare states” have the U.S. welfare system on steroids. Administering such a system must be outrageously expensive. To pay for all those “free-loaders,” Nordic workers must be paying oppressively high taxes. The truth is very different.

The Nordics gave up U.S.-style, means-tested welfare very long ago. They realized that “programs for the poor are poor programs.” They therefore substituted universal services: health care, child care, paid family leave, long paid vacations, elder pensions and home care, job training, university and professional and technical school education.

These universal programs are paid for by taxes. A two-term Norwegian prime minister boasted to the New York Times that he was elected twice on the pledge not to cut taxes. Norwegians know that cutting taxes means cutting services everyone uses. They know (Americans do, too) that, to get quality goods and services, we need to pay a lot.

Arlie Hochschild shows in her book the enormous political damage that has been done by the United States’ choice to stick with welfare instead of going for universal services. A central grievance of hard-working Tea Party members is the belief that other people are getting a softer path through “welfare.” When interviewing in Scandinavia for my book “Viking Economics,” I was told over and over that the consensus for universal services that includes the populist rightist parties would disappear immediately if converted to the U.S. approach. Virtually everyone presently supports the system because it is applied to everyone. Furthermore, it is less expensive than market-based health care. The Nordic countries pay per capita one-half to two-thirds what the United States pays. Single-payer is more efficient—a plus for Tea Party people, as it is for the rest of us.

By comparing systems—the Nordics’ vs. that of the United States—a fresh dialogue can replace the shouted exchange of epithets that we have today. “Strangers in Their Own Land” suggests to me that the dialogue could reach farther into the political right than we saw in 2016 among those who were attracted to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The challenge for progressives is to pay attention to the promise of vision.

George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.

Via Waging Nonviolence )

7 Responses

  1. Here is a problem that I see with forgiving, rather than stereotyping, the trump voters.

    Many Trump voters willingly gulped down false facts and embraced domination over those that tried to make their lives better rather than face concepts that made them uncomfortable. Thousands of trump voters will probably lose the only heath care that is keeping them alive rather than reaching out to those who tried to help them, at great political cost and pain.

    How do you reach out to those who have only said that they want to kill and plow your ideas into the earth for the arrogance of saying that there is another way? That is not forgiveness, that is, to paraphrase the republicans, a suicide pact.

  2. Darrin Mortenson

    Yip, every time they are crushed by a broken promise or one fulfilled is a chance for progressives to take them in. Recruit, don’t shame

  3. But reaching out to Trumpsters would entail joining a Gunsight Baptist Church, owning at least 17 guns, memorizing the local Walmart, knowing the way around the area trailer parks, shunning the dentist, subjecting oneself to local bullying to gain any dialog.

    Trumpsters will only open-up to reason when Trump-driven policies and actions diminish their lives, personally, but most will likely blame Obama.

  4. Trump is the poster child for the scientific fact that voting and political affiliation are emotional decisions, not intellectual ones. Republicans learned that lesson over 40 years ago and have been increasingly winning by careful framing of issues, especially hot button social issues, and camouflaging economic issues.

    Democrats, especially progressives, have consistently pointed out intellectual, rational reasons for their positions, with few exceptions.

    Obama won in 2008 by his emotional appeal. Most people actually believed he was a progressive and had a transformative agenda rather than his actual, neoliberal, incrementalist agenda. If voters had realized what he was actually on planning to do (i.e. save the bankers and let the middle class go down the drain), he would have been defeated. But he had a gift for rhetoric that allowed voters to hear what they wanted to hear, not what he was actually saying, so he can honestly criticize progressives who say they were misled.

    Hillary then went back to her traditional, intellectual, wonkish, ” I have a 27 point plan for everything ” and lost the election.

  5. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to claim their defense is “You have to take the bad with the good,” but then argue that the solution is to “compare systems.” Their whole belief system was founded long ago on their being the Master Race/God’s Hand on Earth and it’s never truly been repudiated. So if they’re better than anyone else, then their struggles can’t be compared to anyone else’s social system – no, their suffering is “special”, perhaps a test from Satan Herself. Thus, “You have to take the bad with the good.” They can come up with a hundred excuses for why we can’t be like Norwegians and have nice things. They even help finance, thru the right-wing movement and Evangelical Protestantism, extremists who go over to countries like Norway and try to ruin what they have and make them like America.

    That’s the heart of tribal culture. Culture is organized conformity that enforces cohesion among strangers in a large society. If they value the cohesion gained by the guaranteed enforcement of pathologies more than they mind the pathologies, then they can always ramp up to lethal levels their fear of what might go wrong in an altered social order as well as those individuals who talk about alteration.

    “Their substitute is to look to the past, the good old days of community, mutual support, a sense of place and continuity.”

    Nope, I don’t see a rational argument against that. People who thought that way usually did not change their minds – the world moved forward as they died off… or the world crashed into barbarism as they triumphed.

  6. Trump voters are making purely emotional decisions based on a totally delusional world view.

    Even thought thinking, rational people KNOW that the trump voter’s decisions will make their lives even more terrible than they already are, the emotional pain the trump voters would have to go through to change their world view is too large for them to even attempt it.

    Numerous psychological studies have show that delusional people will FIGHT with all their might to hang on to their delusions because once their delusions are stripped away, the people have nothing but FEAR.

  7. Love this insight into how to think of Trump/GOP voters. We on the left have the burden to convince enough people to vote for us, and our generally dismissive tone is one of the biggest obstacles. Bill Clinton used to talk about a ‘gateway’ issue, meaning an issue you had to get past to get to anything else. Our constantly asserting our cultural superiority (hell, our general superiority!) closed that gateway almost all the time. Only be putting away the idea that “We Know Better” will we ever be united with our fellows…

Comments are closed.