Joseph Biden has defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. Trump’s 2016 victory was shocking to many, and his administration has been a remarkably continuous assault on normal expectations for presidential leadership, competence, responsibility, and humanity.
What lessons are to be learned from Trump’s presidency? What are we to make of the fervent enthusiasm many Americans have shown for him? How should Trump opponents and supporters interact and think of each other? What should we take from his defeat? How has Trump changed how we think about politics and political philosophy? How can philosophy help us understand what we’ve been through? What should we hope for from Biden and push for as he prepares to govern? How should we conceive of ourselves as a nation? And what questions should we be thinking about? In this edition of Philosophers On, political philosophers address these and related matters.
As with previous “Philosophers On” posts, the contributions are intended not as comprehensive statements or final words, but rather as spurs to further discussion of the issues here and elsewhere. The idea is to explore ways philosophers and philosophically-minded academics in neighboring fields can add to public conversations about current events, as well as propmt further discussion among philosophers about these events.
The authors and their contributions are:
- Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse (Vanderbilt University) – The Agony of Victory, The Thrill of Defeat
- Elisabeth Anker (George Washington University) – Trickle-Down Domination, and Other Pleasures
- Jason Brennan (Georgetown University) – The Good News about the Bad News about the Good News
- Spencer Case (Wuhan University) – Against Political Totalism
- John Corvino (Wayne State University) – Rescuing Civility
- David Estlund (Brown University) – Our Institutions, Ourselves
- Saba Fatima (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) – Does It Really Make a Difference to the Global South Who Is In Power?
- Michael Fuerstein (St. Olaf College) – What Is the Appropriate Moral Reaction to Trump Voters?
- Alex Guerrero (Rutgers University) – Moral Deplorables or Epistemic Reformables?
- Adam Hosein (Northeastern University) – Steps in the Left Direction
- Chris J. Lebron (Johns Hopkins University) – The Time For Liberal Moderation Is Over
- Simon C. May (Florida State University) – Building Confidence
- José Jorge Mendoza (University of Washington) – The Latinx Vote: What Entity, What Identity?
- Regina Rini (York University) – ‘Shy’ Trump Voters: an Epistemic and Ethical Puzzle
- Gina Schouten (Harvard University) – Democratic Deliberation after Trump
- Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (Georgetown University) – Not Biden, Us
Many thanks to these authors for participating in this post on such short notice.
The Agony of Victory, The Thrill of Defeat
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris comes as an enormous relief. Our democracy has been saved from a second Trump term, and arguably saved as such. Yet the outcome falls short of expressing a clear rebuke of Trumpism. The GOP now has a choice: take the defeat to heart and rebrand, or double down on the Trumpist program.
Of course, our hope is that the GOP will take the former course. Yet we expect it to further embrace Trumpism with all of its resentment, contempt, and distrust of a significant portion American citizenry. Why? Well, as we see it, the core of Trumpism is the view that a considerable portion of the American citizenry isn’t properly American. Indeed, it is the view that more than half of the public is against America and in some sense actively plotting its downfall. This is why, for at least the past four years, the GOP has grown more explicitly committed to the idea that political power is to be wielded almost exclusively for the sake of its own expansion. That’s how one governs when one sees one’s opponents as enemies of democracy itself. When the other side is out to dismantle democracy, no electoral defeat of one’s own side could be legitimately democratic. Trump was elected not because he came up with this idea and then sold it to the citizens, but rather because he gave voice to that sentiment. It antedated his candidacy and will persist after his Presidency. Regardless of the election returns, Trump’s defeat appears to his followers as a defeat of America itself.
It’s a potent campaign message. It casts our politics as a standoff between good guys and bad guys, light and darkness. Americans love superhero fantasies where there’s no moral ambiguity, but only the need for strength and resolve. Thus, the fundamental story of Trumpism is, for many citizens, both familiar and exciting. And, as national electoral politics is driven by turnout rather than ideas, it’s a narrative that makes for easy campaigning. Through the Trump the Presidency, then, the GOP has gained a new site of grievance and thus a new electoral resource. For their base, it’s an exhilarating spectacle, especially since they’re convinced that the good guys always win in the end. Trump’s loss is simply the part where the bruised hero rolls up his sleeves and clenches his fists in preparation for a more serious confrontation. The election loss hence contributes to the drama of the GOP story. Viewed within this broader background, Trump’s base will see his defeat as part of the thrill.
Yet good campaign strategy does not easily translate into competent governance. Trumpism is a mechanism for winning elections, not governing. And even though it captures the imagination of certain voters, the GOP’s Manichean vision cannot work as a long-term political strategy. At some point, the story gets old, the characters lose their appeal, and the plot fails to deliver. Until then, though, we should expect the GOP to intensify grievances rooted in a conception of America that strikes many as alien but enthralls its base.
As we said, we find the Biden/Harris victory a great relief. But it comes with its own kind of agony. It falls to the new administration to repair trust in democracy. This is certainly no easy task, and it is made even more difficult by the GOP’s emphasis on America’s alleged brokenness. The impulse is to beat Trumpism at its own game: to use political power to deracinate the GOP, to embrace the stance that the other side is fundamentally anti-American and must be shut down.
We feel this punitive impulse strongly. But it must be resisted. To adopt it is to fuel the toxicity, to supply good reasons for the GOP to persist with Trumpism. What must be done instead is to maintain staunch opposition to the GOP policies and political agenda while redoubling efforts to show how the Democrats’ alternative platform is rooted in ideas that take account of the sources of the Republican base’s grievances. This does not mean that the Biden administration needs to concede anything to those grievances. Nor does it mean that the Democrats must compromise their principles to appease their Republican opposition. In other words, in order to rebuild trust in democracy, we must restore the idea that political power aims at something other than its own expansion.
The difficulty lies with the fact that it feels as if taking steps towards accounting for the other side’s concerns is, indeed, a concession to them. Hence, restoring democracy involves a risk. Although Democrats must hold firm to their principles, they must also, at least provisionally, attempt to return to normal political business with the GOP. Importantly, the aim is not to cause the Republican Party to renounce Trumpism. We are not under the illusion that treating the GOP with decency will cause the scales to fall from their eyes. The objective is rather to break the cycle of dysfunction among the citizenry by modeling the commitment to the idea that in a democracy, political power is always exercised among equals. In order to restore democracy, those holding power need to take that risky, agonizing first step.
Trickle-Down Domination, and Other Pleasures
by Elisabeth Anker
Amidst the jubilation this weekend, the public dancing in the streets and the absolute joy of having defeated an anti-democratic authoritarian tyrant, there was an underlying fear. The election was close, and more Americans had voted for Donald Trump than any other president in U.S. history—except for Joe Biden. The underlying fear was less about Trump, however, than what is referred to as “Trumpism”, shorthand for a set of white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian investments. All of these investments have been part of this country since its founding, but they are once again out in full force, and in new ways. Trumpism reveals, in particular, the deep pleasures of domination these investments catalyze in their supporters. This pleasure is what those of us invested in real democracy—which is the equal exercise of collective power across and through difference, and the shared decision-making practices that shape and co-create our world—worry about.
One of the clearest indicators of the illicit pleasures of Trumpism can be found in “inaccurate” electoral polls. Many people have been denigrating political science for inaccurate polling metrics that didn’t capture the extent of Trump support, but here’s the thing: the polls were accurate in 2018. The only two times they were deeply inaccurate were in 2016 and 2020. And the inaccuracy always benefitted Trump. So the problem is not polling per se, but what polling does not capture about Trump. Why do so many people claim to pollsters that they support other candidates, but once they are nestled in the curtained privacy of their voting booth, they color in the name of the person they were too embarrassed to admit voting for?
Now it is likely that some people don’t cop to voting for Trump because, even though they may be horrified by Trump’s leadership, they imagine that he will best ensure their financial prosperity, true or not. Some do it out of a reflexive loyalty to party, though these people are usually captured accurately in polling. But other people do it not only, or perhaps not at all, for these reasons, but because they take pleasure in what Trump offers, even though they do not admit it publicly: in his performances of domination. Trump dominates over political competitors, over the libs he owns, over the skylines he brands, over the immigrants he encages, over the Muslims he bans, over the women he grabs. Trump takes visceral pleasure in dominating over others; if there is one consistency to all of his policies and behaviors, it is this. And this is also what he promises his supporters, that they too can have this power. They too can own the Libs, can force the police upon unruly black people, can grab the pussy of whoever they want. Trump offers the promise and pleasure of trickle down domination.
The pleasure of trickle down domination does not get accurately captured in polls, but its pervasiveness needs to be addressed. Many people own up to it; others, just as energized by its pleasures, do not. Regardless, it is the exact opposite of radical democracy, as it invests in hierarchy of all forms: racial, economic, gender, sexuality, ability. It invests in the wielding of authoritarianism over vulnerable people, in the global politics of America First over “shithole” countries, in the refusal to share power in any way, and in what I call ugly freedom, which is the deployment of the language of freedom to enact violent domination over vulnerable others. While anti-democratic forces have been part of this nation since the outset, Trump’s ability to catalyze the pleasures of trickle down domination have been magnified by the forces of social media, by the inequities and felt powerlessness of neoliberalism, and by the sheer force of his own malignant yet magnetic narcissism.
Fighting this will take enormous energy, but we’ve also seen millions of people in the US already fighting for the promises of radical democracy, both within and outside state institutions. The Black Lives Matter protests this summer against police anti-blackness were the largest in US history, and they were at once black-led and the most intersectional, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-religious, and multi-gendered protests in US history, showing what it looks like for people to come together in solidarity across difference to fight for the end of state brutality, and for equal futures. We also see it within government, not only in the recommitment of civil servants in my hometown DC to providing public services in all forms, but also in new DSA and aligned members of Congress who fight to harness state power for the needs of all people, guided by substantive visions of full equality and freedom. The intensification of these trends, both inside and outside institutions, offer only some ways of fighting against the pleasures of trickle down domination. Perhaps most importantly, they show how alternate pleasures are cultivated: in the sharing of power, in the work for a more equal and just world alongside allies, and in the wild celebrations in our streets when a tyrant is defeated.
The Good News about the Bad News about the Good News
by Jason Brennan
The good news is that Joe Biden has won the presidency with a record 75,404,182 votes as of the time I type this. We get to tell Big Orange, “You’re fired.” Break out the champagne.
But here’s the weird thing. Trump came pretty damn close to winning, and also received…a higher number of votes than Obama did in 2008. Indeed, Trump had higher support from key minority groups than any Republican in the past 60 years. Republicans also gained seats in the House, and are poised to keep the Senate. Already, we see numerous outlets on the far Left saying that progressivism has been set back, and that this election was sharp rebuke of American Leftism.
So, the bad news about the good news is that Trump didn’t get crushed, despite all his massive flaws. And while it trivializes fascism to call him fascist, he nevertheless did use more authoritarian language than normal. He was racist, sexist, and generally deplorable. Why did he receive the second highest number of votes any candidate has ever received? Does it mean that at least 71 million Americans endorse racism, sexism, and light beer authoritarianism, and that many of the oppressed will stand with their oppressors?
The good news about the bad news about the good news is probably not. It’s too early to know exactly what was in voters’ minds going into this election. But extant work in political science already tells us votes don’t quite mean what we philosophers tend to assume they mean. What this in turn means is that most voters don’t really “support” their candidates or the purported ideology of their party.
Many journalists, philosophers, and laypeople subscribe to a theory of voter behavior I’ll call “sixth grade civics”, because it’s the theory many of us are taught in civics classes roughly around 6th grade in the US. The theory says that voters start with a sense of their goals and concerns. They then learn how the world works, and so form an ideology or a set of policy preferences, where these policies are supposed to promote their goals and concerns. They then vote for party or candidate who best matches their ideology or policy preferences, perhaps picking a second or third best choice when their best match has no real chance. Since we all do this, the winning candidate or party tends to match the policy preferences of the plurality or majority. They then try to implement those policies. Democracy thus transforms popular opinion into power, as Phil Parvin summarizes it (though he rejects this theory).
The problem is that sixth grade civics is wrong, or at best true for a very tiny minority of voters. I’ve previously stressed how most voters are too ignorant and misinformed, and too terrible at following heuristics, to effectively vote for their goals. But you can put all that aside. The problems are even worse than that.
If you want a crash course on voter behavior, read these books:
- Democracy for Realists
- Uncivil Agreement
- Neither Liberal nor Conservative
- The Rationalizing Voter
- Hearing the Other Side
What these books (and the massive amounts of research undergirding them) will show you is that for most voters, politics is not about policy or ideology. Most voters do not know what their party supports. They do not subscribe to their party’s ideology. They do not support their party for ideological or policy-based reasons. Instead, people vote for who they are, not what they want, to paraphrase Appiah. Different identity groups get attached to different parties for what are essentially arbitrary historical reasons, having little to do with policy, and not even usually because particular parties are good for those groups. (Has Trump actually made Southern evangelicals lives better?)
A better metaphor for political behavior is sports fandom. Bostonians are Red Sox or Patriots fans because that’s a way of showing we’re good, loyal members of our local community. Loving Tom Brady and hating the Yankees is a way of demonstrating this loyalty, and such demonstrations help pay social benefits. (In the same way, we can get rewarded for anti-Trump hyperbole.) For most voters, voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden is roughly equivalent to waving the Terrible Towel at a Steeler’s game. It should not taken to demonstrate genuine commitment to their candidate per se, the candidate’s ideas, or their policies. Pats fans want their team to win regardless of who’s wearing the uniform. The same goes for political fans, at least the overwhelming majority of them.
But surely, you say, having not yet read the books I mentioned, don’t lots of voters have explicit ideologies and policy preferences? Well, no, most don’t. But even most of those who do don’t hold them sincerely. What the more seemingly ideological voters generally do is learn what their party says it stands for and then say they agree. How do we know? The following example from Trump generalizes, as the research shows. Before Trump came along, most Republicans who had any consistent opinions on trade would say they were pro-free trade (as all reasonable people are). When protectionist Trump became the presumptive nominee, these same Republicans started saying they were protectionist, switching almost overnight. (Ugh.) Did Trump convince them to change their minds? No, when asked, they would say, “No, I’ve always thought this way.” In the same way, Jimmy down at the Lansdowne Pub said Tom Brady is the GOAT two years ago, but today will tell you (now that Brady left) that he always though Brady was overrated.
So, sure, there’s something terrible about the fact that so many Republicans support Trump and that Trump just got 71 million votes, more than Obama got. But the good news about this bad news is that it probably doesn’t indicate legitimate ideological support. It’s closer to the mentality that people are willing to root for their team’s quarterback during the big game, even though he’s a scumbag off the field. The typical Republican voter just wants the Republicans to win, but doesn’t actually care whether the Republicans accomplish anything on their platform.
Against Political Totalism
by Spencer Case
Both the right and the left talk about losing elections in catastrophizing terms. Michael Anton described the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election” after the hijacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A Clinton presidency would be our national destruction, he claimed, and putting Trump into office was tantamount to seizing the cockpit of the plane. That might also end in disaster, but at least we’d have a fighting chance. What troubles me about this essay is the implication that we were permitted—indeed, required—to do anything to prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency. If we can’t legitimately elect Donald Trump, should we “seize the cockpit” by resorting to fraud or violence? It’s hard to see why not if the alternative is certain doom. I don’t know any conservatives who follow the logic of this article that far, but it’s there to be followed. Likewise the left has slogans like “Vote like your life depends upon it, because it does.” Well, in defense of my own life, I wouldn’t hesitate to commit voter fraud. Again, maybe no one is following the logic of this slogan to its most radical conclusions. But it’s worrying that it’s there to be followed.
The point is this: it’s hard to trust any political institutions, norms, or processes when enough citizens are convinced that everything is at stake, that the survival of our most cherished values depend upon the results of the election. Why concede to someone who will destroy democracy upon assuming office? Respecting laudable political norms doesn’t make much sense if doing so guarantees the imminent destruction of those very norms. Procedural politics of any kind can’t have a long life in a society in which people believe there’s a widespread moral emergency that routinely justifies sacrificing procedure outcome. What if we are really in a moral emergency? Well, then it’s better for us to know about it. Nevertheless, a sense of perpetual emergency poses dangers of its own.
Politics increasingly seems to be everywhere. Organizations we used to think of as neutral are declaring their political allegiance. Scientific American recently endorsed Joe Biden for president. This was the first endorsement of a presidential candidate in the magazine’s 175-year history. Deciding between two political candidates entails taking stances on many contentious political and moral questions. So with this endorsement, Scientific American went beyond science and aligned itself with a political faction. It’s reasonable to wonder whether this commitment will bias its assessment of empirical facts that may bear on political controversies. Scientists aren’t immune to cognitive bias. Popularizers of science certainly aren’t.
This isn’t an isolated case. In 2018, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a position paper by the American College of Physicians arguing for gun control, which provoked gripes from the National Rifleman’s Association. They told the doctors to stay in their lane. Some physicians responded using the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsOurLane. One doctor tweeted pictures of the bloody floor of an operating room and informing her followers that this gunshot patient didn’t make it. The propriety of that is questionable, and so is the notion that opinions on gun policy fall within the expertise of medical doctors. This looks like an example of what Nathan Ballantyne refers to as “epistemic trespassing”: roughly, using one’s expertise in one field to project a false aura of authority in a different domain. Another example is the Harvard School of Public Health webpage running an op-ed asserting that racism is a public health crisis, and elsewhere advising doctors on how to be antiracist.
These efforts to stretch medical and scientific authority for political expedience are bound undermine credibility. Moreover, the pervasiveness of politics is disagreeable. If every corporation feels the need to make some nearly identical statement endorsing Black Lives Matter, then the people who are skeptical of parts of the BLM narrative are going to feel alienated by that movement than they otherwise might. Think of how you’d feel if you received a dozen or so emails from corporations endorsing a slogan associated with the Republicans. Or if Audible, Spotify and Amazon were all nudging you toward books and podcasts about making America great again. I noticed recently that some these companies’ recommendations to me appear to be based not on what I actually want, but on what I’m supposed to want. Isn’t that creepy?
I remember hearing people argue about ten years ago that the so-called culture wars would subside when the left finally won on same-sex marriage (as they clearly would). This would take a contentious political issue off the table, and at that point we’d all have to recognize that the U.S. is a more inclusive place than it used to be. The left did win a decisive victory when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision in 2015, making recognition of same-sex marriage the law of the land. It’s hard to imagine public attitudes turning against same-sex marriage for at least a generation. And yet the “culture wars” seem to be more bitter now. Indeed, they seem to have intensified starting at about the time of the Obergefell decision. What explains this?
My theory is that the victory emboldened the cultural left by proving that total cultural-political victory is possible. Views that had recently been accepted by most Americans of both parties could become grounds for expulsion from polite society and from positions of influence. This is what happened to Brendan Eich, who in 2014 was forced out of his position as CEO of Mozilla Firefox because of his opposition to same-sex marriage. It became possible to hope that a similar transformation could render conservative views on other matters equally beyond the pale. Indeed, why should we tolerate neutrality between good and evil? Affirmation of some obviously righteous leftwing views—e.g., commitments to promote “antiracism” and “diversity”—could soon be preconditions for respectability. One hard push could yield total victory across the board.
Here’s the rub: rarely do attitudes shift so decisively in American public life. Entrenched disagreement is the norm. If mainstream views are routinely declared to be beyond the pale, then the pale is in the wrong place. This holds true even in the case of mainstream views that really are in deep error. If ideas are widely held, then they have to be discussed, not declared to be unacceptable with negative social implications for whoever espouses them. We now see J.K. Rowling being treated as some kind of bigot for holding views on the transgender rights movement that would have put her quite far to the left several years ago. Indeed, twenty five years ago almost no one had views on transgender people that were to the left of Rowling’s. Was everyone a bigot back then?
I think the politicization of everything, together with the left’s increasing cultural dominance, has many conservatives feeling that their backs are against the wall, facing the prospect of permanent marginalization. This is not a position that is conducive to clear thinking. I think they might chill out a bit if the cultural left wasn’t so ambitious. The left would do well to set aside the posturing that they are a ragtag band of resistance rebels boldly speaking truth to power and recognize that they have cultural and economic clout. In the interest of social harmony, they can afford to tolerate a few wrong thinkers in positions of influence. Life is more than politics (or at least it should be) and human beings are more than incarnations of their least rational views.
by John Corvino
In their victory speeches on Saturday, both President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris emphasized themes of decency, empathy, and unity. “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now,” Biden said, after promising to “work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as [for] those who did.”
Notably, in touching on these themes, neither used the word “civility.” This omission did not surprise me. To many modern observers, the term “civility” connotes quaint window dressing at best and a tool for maintaining systemic oppression at worst. After all, civil rights activists who staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters were denounced for their “uncivil” tactics—much like Black Lives Matters protestors today. If you’ve mainly experienced civility as a means for quelling legitimate dissent and keeping the marginalized “in their place,” you have good reason to be skeptical.
It is true that some deploy civility and related notions to cloak injustice behind a veneer of pleasantries. One striking thing about the outgoing president is his regular willingness to dispense with the veneer: He decries critics for being “nasty”—a synonym for “uncivil”—even while tweeting personal insults at them. This paradox appears to invigorate his supporters: He’s the “No bullshit” president who is also a quintessential bullshitter.
Despite these abuses, I hope the concept—and more important, the practice—of civility can be rescued. I take civility to consist in public norms of peaceful coexistence, especially with those with whom we differ. Why do we need such norms?
For starters, it’s nice to be nice and to enjoy pleasant interactions with others. We are social creatures. Part of what made Trump’s presidency so exhausting is his meanness; we feel relieved at a return to norms of decent treatment.
The marginalized rely on such norms as much as, if not more than, the powerful. As Amy Olberding has observed, people are more likely to be rude to their servers than to their bosses. A strong civility culture can protect the dignity of those with less social power. Of course, this point only holds if the norms are fair: Civility that sacrifices equality and dignity for the sake of peace is not worth defending.
At the political level, civility’s deterioration exacerbates partisan polarization, which in turn makes it more difficult to address shared social problems—problems that disproportionately hurt those already at the margins. The same holds true for everyday interactions: When a faculty meeting goes off the rails because people start lobbing insults, it’s generally the grad students or the adjuncts—not the tenured full professors—who are going to get hurt.
In short, we need civility not only because people deserve to be treated with dignity, but also because it helps us get important things done.
One might object that we don’t need the concept “civility” to address these concerns. “Honesty,” “integrity,” “sensitivity,” and “respect” do the job more directly, without civility’s baggage. Perhaps so. But one can argue that practicing these virtues is precisely what civility consists in. It seems useful to have a master concept for good norms of interpersonal interaction.
One might also object that some ideas and practices—-and by extension, some people—really are beyond the pale: one does not civil polite discourse with Nazis, for example. I agree. Even Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers.
But this approach ought to be used sparingly, for both principled and pragmatic reasons. When outrage becomes our go-to stance, we often lose opportunities for working together to effect needed social change.
The general idea is that we are better off when we cultivate habits of mutual respect, understanding, and humility than when we don’t. May the next four years—and beyond—give us a compelling example of this idea in practice.
Our Institutions, Ourselves
by David Estlund
Here’s something I think I’ve learned from the Trump years, something worth keeping in mind in these perilous coming days: social and political institutions can’t be relied on to protect us from ourselves—they are ourselves.
We’ve all heard (less often now than in 2016) that “it can’t happen here,” that our institutions are too strong to allow our becoming an authoritarian society. It’s meant to reassure us, when authoritarian forces are rising, that they won’t be able to break through the walls of our strong institutions. But what are strong institutions? Do our institutions protect us against ourselves in that way? I doubt it, and it’s dangerous to think they do. I don’t mean that that the protection is less than complete. I mean rather that the very idea is a kind of conceptual mistake.
I’ll come to institutions, but first a little about me: I’m extremely unlikely ever to dance like a chicken while presenting a talk. Of course, and importantly for my point here, its being virtually certain that I won’t do it doesn’t mean that anything prevents me from doing it. Dancing like a chicken is easy. In a way that’s too bad. I am not protected from myself, not prevented from staging that humiliating spectacle by my inclination or tendency never to do it. I can dance like a chicken if I want. More darkly, I can also join the KKK if I want to. Whether to do it remains entirely, dangerously, available—wholly up to me. I might have a change of heart, and then those earlier compunctions will have simply gone missing. They don’t constrain me—they are me, as long as I have them, and no longer.
The same goes, more or less, for our society’s norms and institutions, and the stakes are even higher. They don’t limit what we are able to do, and so they don’t protect us from our changes of heart. The institutions are how we behave, not limits on how we can behave if, in sufficient numbers, we decide to.
Our legal and political institutions can, it’s true, protect the rest of us from a few of us. If one person or a small group tries to undermine them, so long as enough others carry on it will fail. That would be enough to protect us against an aspiring authoritarian president, for example. But we, or enough of us, might just decline to carry on, or at least not try very hard. In that case, our so-called institutions will just have faded or changed. The old ones do not somehow hold the line. They can just go missing, something that has been up to us all along. No one needs to kick down any walls. There are no walls.
I say “so-called institutions” because the word itself may tempt the mistake I’m worried about. Some things called institutions have street addresses. Some of those are thickly built to prevent entry or escape. The word conjures bricks and mortar, edifices that stand up not just to others, but even to us if we were to press against them—as if we can kick them and see that they would be hard to breach.
Social institutions, though, are nothing like that. The terms, “practices,” or “patterns,” helpfully lack the connotation of built structures that “institutions” has, and so it’s important to realize this: our social, legal, and political institutions are nothing but some of our patterns and practices. Our anti-authoritarian patterns and practices, such as they are, don’t stand between us and authoritarianism as brick walls might, any more than my practices about chicken-dancing, or whether to join the KKK, stand between me and those bad choices. The institution of the rule of law can’t stop us, since that is a practice that we might—with a nudge from a few pioneers of lawlessness—simply give up in a change of heart. The institution of our courts of law can’t stop us either if, as we easily might, we change. They are of us. And, notably, the institution of the peaceful transfer of the presidency can’t protect us; we might shrink from it when pressed. And then it’s gone.
Institutions are not edifices, and for similar reasons it is a mistake to call them, as we sometimes hear, “sticky.” Our social institutions do not bind us to our democratic patterns and practices, alas. They just are our practices. Again, compare the individual case. Granted, some “habits” are more than just that and are as sticky as superglue—for example, a heroin habit. If only we could, individually and collectively, induce addictions to our best aims and aspirations! But few habits have that element of bondage, and as far as I can tell no social institutions do. Some are long-lasting, but even then they are not outside our power to abandon—if we quit they quit. You might have a practice of being quick about paying parking tickets, but that doesn’t mean it is also a second thing—a piece of duct tape pinning that practice down, preventing you from separating yourself from it and protecting you from procrastinating. The promptness is present until it goes missing. Maybe it’s more or less unlikely to go missing, but if you stop being prompt (which, take my word for it, is dead easy) it’s gone. With societies, too, settled practices may be more or less likely to continue, but that’s not protection. I’m unlikely to dance like a chicken or join the KKK too, but that isn’t something standing in my way. For better or for worse (depending on which practice) even if certain of our institutions seem likely to persist, we are hardly stuck with them. We might choose to stick with them, or, perhaps in just a fateful heartbeat—we might let them dissolve.
How might it be helpful to avoid thinking of our (once?) vaunted democratic institutions as akin to stone castles or to gooey fly-paper? Maybe one way is this: if we could rely on our institutions as strong or sticky protections against ourselves, then early lapses in our culture of democratic commitments might be fairly harmless, kept within limits by the bricks, or the glue, of the democratic institutions we live in. But do we live inside institutions, or are we ourselves the bricks and mortar, or perhaps the paper and tape as the case may be? If, as I am suggesting, a wider lapse of democratic “institutions” is always available to us—if the rise of the lunatics would frighteningly be one and the same as the crumbling of the asylum—then we might more readily realize that once people are continually reassuring themselves that, “it can’t happen here,” that little bit of complacency is a bit of crumbling, and a sign that it may be happening already. The question is not what our “institutions” are made of: bricks, mortar, paper, tape. It’s what we’re made of. The crumbling might truly have been unlikely, but, again, that’s no protection at all. It is and has always been entirely up to us.
Does It Really Make a Difference to the Global South Who Is In Power?
by Saba Fatima
I thought I was mentally prepared for the reelection of Donald Trump. Leading up to election day, my family was quite surprised by my calmness. Yet, come Tuesday evening my anxiety levels were through the roof. I must have refreshed my browser a thousand times for the next couple of days. Needless to say, a wave of relief came over me when I knew for sure that a Biden victory had been secured.
There is so much to be done from providing federal pandemic guidelines, staffing the CDC, rejoining the WHO and the Paris Climate agreement, to reinstating education, public health, and environmental policies that Trump administration rolled back. And of course, there is the ‘healing’ that American media keeps talking about. We are more divided than ever and apparently, we need a president that can heal us. But I have always been a firm believer that actual healing cannot take place without justice. And, given how much we forgive our past administrations, I am not optimistic that there will be much justice dealt out.
But that is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on some of the conversations that are taking place among people who live in the Global South. While many Muslim Americans were relieved to be rid on an openly xenophobic, anti-Black racist, and Islamophobic president, the same was not necessarily true for many Muslims who live in the Global South.
During his tenure, Trump praised dictators and made extremely xenophobic remarks about African nations, Mexicans, South Americans, and about Muslims at-large. His rhetoric concerning other nations seemed to be rooted in his enormous ego and his hatred of people of color from the Global South. His approach to dealing with other nations appeared to be contingent on his personal relationship with the leader of the said country. Yet many abroad saw this as ‘merely’ false bravado and viewed the Trump administration as a non-interfering administration, an administration that did not start any new wars on Muslim lands. Such folks are apprehensive about a return to normal for America.
But it is not true that the Trump administration was non-interfering abroad. For example, while President Obama did launch an unprecedented number of drone attacks abroad, President Trump not only extended the drone wars in Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, but also made the process of authorizing drone attacks more opaque and further reduced any accountability. We continued our war in Yemen where millions are starving to death. We continued our support of military regimes and dictators in other countries. And of course, we maintained a heavy military presence around the world, from places like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, to Djibouti, Kenya, and Egypt.
The truth is that for many in the Global South, it does not make that much of a difference in who comes into power. The general direction of US foreign policy does not change drastically from president to president and it maintains its imperialist nature. The global world order does change. For example, over time, China and India have become major economic players and there has been a rise in right-wing populists coming into power around the world. Our foreign policy adjusts to these changing circumstances. But ultimately, America seeks to maintain its global dominance, both economically and militarily.
For Americans, Trump was an unpredictable player on the world stage and we see the election of Biden as a return to normalcy in terms of America’s engagement with the rest of the world. It is true that the U.S. will be more stable under Biden, but this does not necessarily mean that the United States will suddenly become the bastion of democracy and individual rights. Regardless of who is in power, the United States will continue its imperialist policies.
What Is the Appropriate Moral Reaction to Trump Voters?
by Michael Fuerstein
Something like 47% of the American voting population has voted for a man regarded by about 50% of the country as a criminally incompetent, morally depraved threat to most things that are worth valuing. The question I’d like to raise is this: if you are in the 50% group, then what is the appropriate moral attitude to take towards the 47% group? Below are the primary options that seem available.
There is a familiar skeptical challenge here from discussions of epistemic peer disagreement. Biden-voters see Trump as dangerous, incompetent, and depraved, but Trump-voters see Biden in similar terms. Biden-voters see Trump-voters as dupes of Breitbart. Trump-voters see Biden-voters as credulous ideologues snarfing down propaganda served up by the New York Times (while sipping lattes in a Volvo). If you’re a Biden voter, you think that QAnon is crazy-talk, but Trump-voters think that climate change is a socialist hoax.
If you’re in the matrix, you don’t know that you’re in the matrix. So one option for the Biden-voter is to withdraw moral judgment of Trump-voters by retreating into self-doubt. You, dear Biden-voter, can accept that you are in a fevered state of tribal group partisanship as much as Trump supporters. But since your judgments about Trump are based on science, reason, philosophy and, yes (gasp!) even the New York Times, you need to doubt the credibility of those things too. And now you have retreated into radical skepticism. You are Descartes in front of his fire.
Assume instead that Biden-voters’ harsh judgment of Trump is justified and roughly accurate. How could so many people vote for such a man? One narrative goes like this: “Trump-voters have been ignored by liberal ‘elites’ and the technocratic plutocracy who run the economy. While the U.S. has made enormous economic gains in aggregate over the past few decades, much of the working class has been left behind. Trump promised to stand up for their interests in a new way, and so working-class Trump voters cannot be morally blamed for wanting to ‘shake things up’ by voting him in.”
Let me observe, first, that fewer than 40% of Trump voters in 2016 were working class. Setting that aside, Trump’s primary achievement on economic policy was a massive tax break for rich people and corporations. There is no good evidence that he has meaningfully improved the prospects of the working class any more than a democratic president would have (before COVID, economic growth under Trump was similar to what it had been under Obama).
In any case, even if Trump has generated some economic benefit to his working class base, it’s hard to see how this would morally outweigh any number of his other failures. If you are an outraged Biden-voter who wants to exculpate 2020 Trump-voters in terms of the “we got unfairly ignored by elites” narrative, then you seem committed to the view that “being left behind” is some kind of magical force which dissolves scientific and moral competence. In other words, you seem committed to a rather obnoxious form of moral pity. This attitude is not compatible with basic forms of civic respect. Having this attitude itself seems to reflect some kind of moral failure.
Here is a somewhat different narrative popular among Biden-voters: “Trump-voters consume an endless diet of epistemic garbage served up by conservative media and Russian twitter-bots. They fall into Facebook and YouTube wormholes. They are bowled over by Tucker Carlson’s charisma. But this is understandable because, in this new digital reality, it’s so hard to know who to trust.”
If you think about things in this way, then Trump-voters are not morally culpable for their epistemic negligence because they are overmatched by the modern knowledge ecosystem. In other words you view Trump voters with a contemptuous condescension, probably tinged by fear. To see things in this way is to think of Trump voters, not as moral agents, but instead as dangerous social objects who must be kept in check. Let’s face it: this is—again—a pretty obnoxious point of view.
Alternatively, you might think that Trump voters are genuinely capable of sizing up Trump for what he is. You might think this: “Trump voters are epistemically competent citizens who know what they are looking at and like what they see. They see his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power as morally acceptable. They support his winking endorsement of white militia groups (“stand back and stand by!”). They understand the implications of denigrating public health experts in the face of a historic pandemic, and give him two thumbs up for it.” If this is how you see Trump-voters, then you grant them moral agency and therefore see them as culpable for actions that you regard as morally beyond the pale. But seeing people as culpable for morally horrible things justifies at least some kind of searing outrage, if not outright hatred. This implications of this for our democratic future are truly depressing.
I recently learned that someone in my family orbit voted for Trump in 2016. I don’t know whether they voted for Trump again this year, but I like this person. Over the years we have had some great times together. On the face of things, it seems perverse to say that they are a bad person or that, on balance, they are unworthy of respect, simply because they voted for Trump. It’s true: there is a wild-eyed, virtue-signaling, MSNBC-addicted political homunculus within me who is tempted to say these things. But I don’t want to indulge this unhinged character. In general, reducing people to what they do in the voting both seems like a serious mistake of some kind. On the other hand… there’s the whole thing about undermining democracy, inciting political violence, and showing a callous disregard for the future of the planet.
Respect is the attitude that I want to have towards my fellow citizens. Respect is the attitude we should all want to have, and that political theory tells us we should have. I think the most promising pathway to respect goes through a narrative like this: “People are complicated. People can do bad things in the voting booth while still being caring neighbors and devoted friends who volunteer at soup kitchens. The Trump voter you think you hate may very well be the person rushing to your aid in a crisis. Focusing so narrowly on people’s political behavior is a foolish form of moral reductionism. Try dialing down the self-righteousness for a few minutes before you write off half of your country.”
Like I said, this is the narrative that I want to endorse. Do you find it plausible? I find it compelling up to a point. But I get hung up on the severity of Trump’s objective failings. If someone is a kind and devoted school teacher but also supports a man who would separate frightened children from their parents at the border then what, on balance, is the fitting moral reaction?
Moral Deplorables or Epistemic Reformables?
by Alex Guerrero
Four years ago, I wrote that whoever won, half the country would feel “some combination of anger, alienation, shame, sadness, despair, fear, impotence, rage, and hopelessness.” We—the millions of members of the two parties—were far apart then and have moved even further apart under Trump.
If you are one of the almost 76 million Americans who voted for Biden, what should you make of the almost 72 million Americans who voted for Trump? Let me distinguish two broad views.
The first is to see Trump supporters—or at least many of them—as bad like Trump: as people who are racist, or xenophobic, or sexist, or don’t mind that Trump is; people who spent four years saying “fuck your feelings”; people who don’t mind Trump’s willingness to make up electoral fraud and to disregard norms of law and democracy; people who ignore or embrace Trump’s cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes. These people might be Trump die-hards who worship him, quasi-nihilistic fans who enjoy his talent for enraging the left, or pragmatists who see Trump as a cruel but effective means to their ends. Whichever category they fall in, they are morally culpable for supporting Trump—particularly once it was clear exactly who Trump is and how he would govern—and likely to be what we might colloquially call bad people. Furthermore, this is not something that is easily changeable. These views and values are now deeply held and unlikely to be modified, at least not in the near future, at least not for the vast majority of them. Call this the moral deplorables view.
The second is to see Trump supporters as not nearly as bad as Trump himself. These 70 million Americans might be people who have been misled into viewing Trump in unrealistic ways: as a patriot, a leader, a staunch ally of Black and Latina/o communities, a religious person who cares about all people, a skilled businessman who can support employment and economic recovery, an ally of freedom and justice. These are people whose values—we are to imagine—are not that different from our own. They are not racists, bigots, or sexists, or not deeply so, and perhaps not much more than many of Biden’s 76 million supporters. But they have a large set of false non-moral beliefs about Trump himself, and another large set of false non-moral beliefs about the views and character and positions of those on the left, including Biden. Let us imagine, further, that those false beliefs themselves are not culpably held—they result from the evidence they have encountered in the echo chambers that they find themselves in, and that they find themselves in these positions is not their fault. There are more modest and more extreme versions of this view—maybe people are somewhat morally responsible for their false views, rather than being completely off the hook. But the basic view suggests that Trump supporters could be productively engaged, that they could change their views. Call this the epistemic reformables view.
(I will leave aside the view that asks us to think that Trump himself is not as bad as he seems to be, although of course that is what Trump supporters would urge us to think.)
The first view focuses on the deep moral character of Trump supporters. The second view focuses on the contingently bad epistemic situation of Trump supporters. The correct view probably involves some complex mixture of these.
Many who support Biden will see the moral deplorables view as correct and see the epistemic reformables view as misguided and naïve. The idea of trying to empathize with and constructively engage Trump supporters—something that they almost never do for us—is pointless and morally misguided. We are done with the countless thinkpieces that try to understand the disaffected white Trump voter. If you support Trump, we don’t support you, we aren’t going to try to understand you, we aren’t going to go out of our way to engage you, we are going to fight you tooth and nail, and we are going to defeat you. What that means is not entirely clear. More on that in a moment.
On the epistemic reformables view, we assume that many of Trump’s supporters are not as bad as supporting Trump would seem to require. Something else must have gone wrong. Many put blame at the doorstep of the misinformation ecosystem that exists on the right, led by Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed, OAN, Gateway Pundit and others at the extreme edge, and Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, Fox News, and others at something somewhat less extreme—all of this swirled together and shared by the output from smaller operations and individuals through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Parler. This is how people end up believing QAnon, how they end up seeing Biden as a “child sniffing, demented liar,” and how they end up thinking everyone in the Democratic party is secretly a socialist (indistinguishable from a communist) hellbent on destroying America.
There are other explanations, too. The genuine suffering of whole communities that is ignored and disparaged by “coastal elites” who constantly condescend to people they have never met who live in places that they would never set foot in. Their apparently racist and bigoted attitudes are not deep; they reflect lack of education, fear of what is unfamiliar, and being a bit behind rapidly changing social norms. And, as I argue, a further diagnosis can be found when we look at the broad social effects of elections.
On this view, the things to push for are reform of our institutions: educational, political, informational. With those kinds of reforms, we will come to see that millions of Trump supporters are very much like us—people we cannot only tolerate and respect, but also love and embrace. We will also come to see the way in which our own echo chambers and biases have resulted in misunderstandings and misperceptions of them.
We will get more information about which view is correct in the coming years as we see how people change (or don’t) in response to Biden’s presidency and Trump receding (we can hope) into the background. But when I incline toward the second, one reason is because of the relatives of mine who I know both support Trump and, although not perfect people, are not like Trump—and I can see how they have come to believe what they believe, even when that seems like a mistake.
If one thinks the first view is correct, one must think about what other moral obligations come along with that view. Among other things, I think that view should come with a commitment to dissolving the United States political community.
If one is elected to represent a political community, one should be committed to taking seriously the preferences and values of the whole community, compromising with (and certainly not just ignoring) views held by large percentages of the population, and making law and policy that is responsive to the full electorate, not just 51% of it. But one should ignore morally deplorable views and citizens who hold such views. But one cannot do so if that means ignoring the views of millions of people in a systematic way. In that context, the options are either a kind of omnipresent moral paternalism or simple political domination—neither is compatible with basic democratic values, at least not if one expects that situation to be durable over time. Being in a political community requires foundational respect for the views of others in that community, even in the face of disagreement. If that respect is missing—even if it is appropriately withheld—democratic political community cannot exist.
Trump got near 60% or more of the vote in the contiguous states of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. That deep red stripe can pick up other softer red states if they want to join. The Western and Eastern states could be two separate countries, or one. Maybe even raising the possibility results in some change.
Of course, it is true that views do not go away if one simply divides the political community. What one faces then is the situation we are in with respect to many foreign countries with what we perceive to be serious problems—we try to influence them to change and open our borders to those who would like to leave their community and join ours.
To the extent that this response seems excessive, it is perhaps because we still have hope that we are in the epistemic reformable situation. But—I conclude once again, four years later—perhaps we should be more open than we seem to be to talking about whether and why we all want to remain in a country together.
Steps in the Left Direction
by Adam Hosein
Victory came late indeed; the frost of anxiety having crept over us once more. Yet there was real warmth when it arrived. We will hopefully need only a day of the new administration to witness, among other things, the reinstation of DACA, a return to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and an end to the Muslim Ban. There will finally be a federal response to the pandemic that pays real attention to science. These are serious changes with important consequences for the lives of people within the country and around the world.
What will and should happen beyond those early days is already a subject of fierce debate on the left. The more centrist elements of the Democratic party are pushing for a focus on discrete, relatively uncontroversial measures, which can be sold to an extremely polarized nation. Meanwhile progressives, within and outside of the party, insist that it is no time to compromise and that the new administration must seek out large, structural reforms, which cater especially to the underserved populations—such as Black women—whose organizing made Biden and Harris’s success possible.
What to make of this? I suggest that there is a degree of parallel here with long-standing philosophical debates about ‘ideal’ and ‘non-ideal’ approaches to justice, which focus, respectively, on what would make for a perfectly just system and what would incrementally make the world at least a bit more just. My own view about that debate is that we must in fact face the difficult task of always doing both at once: always searching for what can be done immediately and for the better while also maintaining some long-term term vision. I suggest that a similar, difficult task, must now be attempted in left-wing politics.
The weakness of the centrist position is that the scale of injustice in the U.S. right now is simply vast. The economy serves best not simply the rich, but the ultra-ultra-rich, while those at the bottom work in precarious, poorly-paid, harsh conditions. Disadvantaged Black communities continue to be ravaged by the effects of mass incarceration, continuous surveillance, housing instability, crime, and unemployment. Immigrant communities that were already regularly terrorized by ICE during the Obama-Biden years have suffered far worse under the utter vindictiveness of the Trump-Pence regime.
These facts give real impetus to the progressive case. But that approach—in so far as it insists on the party adopting platforms like ‘Medicare for All’ and police abolition—faces its own challenges. These goals look infeasible in the face of (most likely) divided government, with the Democrats lacking control of the Senate. And communities that are hurting so badly need immediate help, not just the promise of a new order. Moreover, in a U.S. where so many people lead precarious lives it is important for the left to show and not merely tell people that it can improve their existence. It is no surprise that even in the face of a deadly virus many Americans were more concerned that they might lose their job from a lockdown: they had no faith that anyone would save them from starvation.
What then, to do? What I tentatively suggest is that we must proceed on a policy by policy basis, treating a Biden-Harris administration neither as a savior nor as a purely hostile force. We need to ask both whether a given policy will bring greater justice to the least served, and whether it will ultimately open up or forestall more structural changes. In some cases, this should be straightforward. It appears, for example, that even without congress Biden could quickly forgive substantial student loan debt. Good: let’s support that and seek to make it as generous as possible for low-income households. In other cases, more reflection will be needed on the relation between short and long-term goals. A public option for health insurance (if it can be achieved at all) should be introduced not as an insurance policy of last resort, but with the aim of making it as attractive as possible, showing that we can ultimately do without private insurance. In the case of policing, there is the risk that the administration will focus mainly on making policing less brutal (a fully comprehensive ban on chokeholds, for example), sapping attention from the important long-term goal of introducing a less punitive approach to crime overall. Yet even here, I’m hopeful that humane shifts in funding towards (for example) mental health services can be achieved and used to illustrate that we can both address mistreatment in the criminal justice system and reduce crime. (After all, even in Minneapolis the attempt to dismantle and replace the police department seems to have foundered on a lack of public trust that there is a viable alternative to policing.) In many cases, more radical policies such as a substantial basic income or greater worker control of firms will not be possible to trial at the federal level, but that still leaves the option of attempting to demonstrate their worth at the state and local level.
There are so many hard empirical and moral questions to consider when setting priorities. I certainly can’t claim to have the all the answers, but I am hopeful that the left has an opening if we can focus: get tangible things done, get them done quickly, and do them with an eye to showing that larger changes are possible. It’s a time for policy to not only reflect hope but build it.
The Time For Liberal Moderation Is Over
by Chris J. Lebron
I must confess—I am perpetually puzzled by liberal moderates because, they, mostly self-professed left-liberals, seem to hold their position in direct opposition to the reality of America. Soon, barring the most tragic third act in politics ever, Trump will be gone and I will not bother masking the intense satisfaction his loss brings me. The man is a quite low human being, and that is putting it kindly. Nothing in him would satisfy any of the moral thinkers we hold dear. But Trump, as is now commonly observed, is just a symptom of something deeper in America. He exposed the wide-spread comfort with white supremacy and the easiness of misogyny and sexual aggression. He could not be bothered even trying to mask his opprobrium for the LGTBQ community, which only recently really began to make serious strides in being accepted as the human beings capable of ordinary love that they are, and the respect that that is supposed to bring, and he made clear anyone darker than him coming from a nation without blond people was part of the ‘shithole’ global contingent, amplifying a previously low-level xenophobia that found its champion.
I map all this out because Trump was energized by what the writer Kiese Laymon on social media often terms ‘the worst of white folk’, but he was enabled by ‘the best of white folk’—moderates. For sure, that is a bold claim, so I’ll defend it and let’s see where we end up.
I perceive two arguments in favor of moderation—one practical, and one moral. I shall only mention the practical to briefly to quickly dispense with it, and spend more time on the ethical. The practical argument for moderation is: it gets more things done. I am very willing to accept that that is true, but this just raises the question: what things are getting done and on whose behalf? I won’t be so zealous as to say moderation has never produced any goods. Obama-era moderation produced the most ambitious health-care legislation this nation has ever seen, for example. But the story of America is one where year by year, the least well-off suffer increasing depredations while the best off increasingly monopolize the best of the American dream. Our educational system is in tatters as is our infrastructure. And for all of America’s golden-glow talk of family values, the pandemic has exposed all the ways there is no support for that hallowed institution as families across the income spectrum find that our modes of economic production are antithetical to even basic expectations of childcare. This is all the result of moderation.
The ethical argument for moderation is, on the face of it, compelling as well. It says something like: moderation is the preferred political position because it brings (Rawlsian?) stability to a scheme of (supposedly) ongoing cooperation and ensures wide inclusivity in the polity. Here again, I must admit, this sounds quite nice… as well as ideal theoretical. I fully endorse the ambition to appeal to the widest cross-section of the nation, but I am a pragmatist and I see nothing but trouble in such a strategy.
Moderate politics, by its very nature, takes reckoning with the status quo seriously. Make no mistake, moderates can disapprove of the status quo and seek moral improvement from its values. But, to my mind, to the key problem is they reckon with the status quo and reject accelerationism of almost any sort. They usually do not want tomorrow to look too different from today and they usually do not want to get to their new destination too quickly. (Importantly, some moderates will bristle at my characterization, to which I say—welcome and shamelessly own your progressive instincts; be your best self.
But I am pragmatist and the very first question a pragmatist demands be answered is: exactly what is the reality of the moment and in what ways can I seek to improve the state of the world intelligently; what will make a leap of faith both bold yet well-informed? If in the face of the pragmatic demand we take the above characterizations of moderate politics seriously, I seem prima facie committed to moderation. But, alas, America is a cesspool of nearly every sort of historical injustice one can imagine; injustices that do not merely mar our history but haunt our present and ever insist on sticking around for our future. And this is the moral failing of the moderate. In seeking to reckon with the status quo in a nation like ours they in fact empower it.
To take one example: the Black Lives Matter movement could have been preempted by policies aimed at curbing racist police abuse after the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Instead the Clintons embraced super-predator theory while in 1994 Joe Biden—now the president-elect—stood on the floor of the senate doing his best wink and nod to his ‘friends across the aisle’, some of whom were known apologists for racism, calling for a deepening and emboldening of the police state. Actions like these have been taken by moderate democrats to keep a hold on the Golden Goose of American politics—the average white American. If that’s what it takes, what exactly does that say about moderation?
The answer is, nothing kind or laudatory. It is notable that Occupy Wall St., #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter all came to the fore in the wake of the most promise-filled, and, in some ways successful moderate political regimes—Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s combined sixteen years of executive power. Three of the most dissatisfied and widespread movements in recent American history all happened (and are happening) within years of each other. My view is that these movements are symptomatic of the conditions that enabled Trump—failures of moderates to take intelligent and honest stock of America’s weak moral history and its continuous violations against human decency for many populations. There is a great privilege in saying, “not too far and not too fast” when one can look around the world and think it mostly satisfies your basic material and existential needs. And it is this moral complacency that provided the most fertile ground for Trump’s truly awful four years for a simple and damning reason: he also looked around and concluded, “there is enough of what is already around me to activate ‘the worst of white folks.’ Trump has never created a thing in his life. His career consists, rather, in being perversely shrewd at exploiting others including the milquetoast stances of true moderates, which is what has dominated left politics until just recently.
But now, progressive dissatisfaction is not only a whisper in the wind but a holler in the halls of congress, the number of voices of which continues to grow. Georgia was delivered by a black woman who the party still has not properly thanked. A significant portion of the American people support the removal of valorous totems of our historical villains from places meant for civic decency. Moderates have a moral bill to pay and they need to get it together—2024 is not long off and, as of today, one of our political parties is perfectly clear what it stands for, while the other does not; and the party that is clear sees moderation as its door through which to drag us all kicking and screaming back to the 1950’s, and if that happens, it will in part be the fault of those who travel nearby slowly rather than aim for the horizon audaciously.
by Simon C. May
Some people seem to be quite optimistic about the future now that President Trump has been defeated. I remain quite pessimistic, and not only because Biden’s victory was not as emphatic as I had hoped. As I write, Trump still refuses to acknowledge his loss, preferring instead to foment delusional conspiracy theories about how the election has been stolen from him. I expect a great many of his supporters will follow him into this epistemic bunker, distrusting all evidence to the contrary. I also expect some of these supporters will turn to violence in the weeks, months, and years ahead. This is nothing new—the history of representative government in the United States has more than its fair share of repressive brutality, from New Orleans and Wilmington to Neshoba County and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And alongside this likelihood of increased authoritarian violence, I expect further deterioration in the general public’s level of support for democratic electoral politics. There will be assassination attempts and, perhaps more dangerously, widespread sympathy for the aspiring assassins.
I do not know how best to respond to delusional people carrying AR-15s or to their well-wishing enablers on the sidelines. But if the country is experiencing something of a crisis of confidence in its democratic institutions and practices, I believe the appropriate response is to make those institutions and practices all the more worthy of confidence. For too long, American democracy has been hamstrung by the disproportionate power of an overwhelmingly white minority. The Electoral College could very easily have been won by the candidate with fewer votes, for the third time in two decades. The Senate is likely to remain in the hands of the representatives of the least populous states. And the House is perennially undermined by the gerrymandering work of state legislatures. A comprehensive democratic New Deal is required, one that will restore the voting rights of millions of disenfranchised citizens, combat voter suppression in all its forms, and guarantee fair and competitive congressional districts. The various territories of the United States, especially Puerto Rico, must be admitted as states with full representation in Congress. In addition, it is high time to push for democratic constitutional change: the electoral college system must be abolished, and the powers of the unrepresentative Senate rolled back.
These measures are unlikely to be realized any time soon, of course. But if the country does not start shifting in the direction of democratic reform, then it will find itself increasingly comfortable with and complacent about the creeping authoritarianism that Donald Trump has done so much to accelerate.
The Latinx Vote: What Entity, What Identity?
by José Jorge Mendoza
There is a longstanding debate among Latinx philosophers about what exactly constitutes a Latinx identity. The “Common Bundle” view—a view criticized by Jorge Gracia and defended by Ernesto Rosen Velásquez—suggests that there is no one thing (no necessary and sufficient condition) that comprises a Latinx identity. Instead there are multiple potential properties and having a Latinx identity requires simply securing enough of them. According to Velásquez, these properties are mostly lower-order ones such as: “Speaking Spanish, being named Juan, using sazón or dancing salsa or tango, eating menudo, and having cuchifritos.”
For years I have resisted this position, thinking it too ad hoc and circular to be true or of any real use. Increasingly, however, I have begun to rethink my stance and believe that this year’s election gives it credence, even at the risk of undermining the reality or usefulness of a Latinx identity.
The 2020 election has once again confirmed that there is no monolithic Latinx voting block. Cubans in Florida have again largely supported Donald Trump. And despite the fact that Latinx and Blacks together comprise almost 52% of the Texas electorate, Trump easily won the state again and did so all the while making inroads with the Latinx community. This suggests to me that we should give up on the idea that a Latinx identity is something akin to a racial identity and come to accept that—to the extent that there is a Latinx identity—it is something more akin to a “Common Bundle.”
Critical race theorists such as Ronald Sundstrom and David Kim have for some time now urged us to appreciate the differences between xenophobia and racism. This is admittedly easier said than done, given that the two so often come as a package deal. Still, I think understanding this difference can help make sense of current Latinx voting patterns and perhaps give us a glimpse into what the future holds for a Latinx identity. So here is how I see it.
Xenophobia in the U.S. has its roots in the discrimination faced by German immigrants in the early 1700’s. Before there was Samuel Huntington or Donald Trump, there was Benjamin Franklin who, concerned with dramatic increases in German immigration, asked: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens?” The reason Franklin was so opposed to German immigration was that, instead of assimilating, he saw these immigrants as: “herding together [and] establish[ing] their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours.” Not to mention that Germany was clearly not sending us their best and brightest, only their “…most ignorant stupid…[those not] used to Liberty…[and who would soon] outnumber us.” A hundred years later, when Germans were accepted as real Americans based on their commitment to Protestantism, this xenophobia was transferred onto Irish Catholics and the notoriously nativist and proto-Q-Anon “Know-Nothing” party was born.
Racism in the Americas, however, has a much different origin story. It’s a story grounded in our continent-wide’s history of settler colonialism and chattel slavery. Unlike the victims of xenophobia—who were eventually fully welcomed into Whiteness once their eligibility for citizenship was no longer in question—victims of racism have throughout the Americas remained at the bottom of the well. The U.S. is no exception here. Even after acquiring formal citizenship and embracing hyphenated identities, Native-Americans, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans have found that there is no “melting pot” for them. The U.S. can be a “nation of immigrants” but it will never be a non-White nation.
Understanding the difference between groups forged under conditions of xenophobia and those forged by racism helps us understand what is at the core of the Latinx identity and why it breaks apart in the ways and the places it does. A Latinx identity is never more real than when confronting xenophobic concerns. The worries that unite nearly all Latinx people are those that—similar to the Germans in the 1700’s and the Irish Catholics of the 1800’s—target our language (e.g., Spanish) or culture (e.g., music and names) and portray them as somehow a threat to the American way of life. This is our “Common Bundle” and nowhere will you find a stronger sense of Latinidad.
Where things begin to fall apart is when we are forced to deal with issues of race and racism. Here we see how racism has been a continent-wide (as opposed to merely national) project. White Cubans or White Columbians do not suddenly stop being White simply because they are victims of xenophobia. They do not suddenly forget what Whiteness is and the privileges that come with it. Similarly, Black Latinx in Georgia do not stop being Black simply because they also happen to be targets of xenophobia. Nor are Latinx (especially Indigenous Latinx) in the American Southwest, who have historically been victims of U.S. Manifest Destiny, confused about the difference between settler colonialists and migrants fleeing violence and starvation. More so than class, education, age, or religion, race not only explains the different voting patterns of the Latinx community, but it also explains how and why we see the world so differently. So different in fact, that if the best we can expect to find is a “Common Bundle,” then maybe it’s time to cancel the search for a Latinx identity.
‘Shy’ Trump Voters: an Epistemic and Ethical Puzzle
by Regina Rini
What to make of the ‘shy’ Trump voter, who declined to tell pollsters they planned to vote for the now-outgoing president? This is surprisingly rich philosophical terrain. For starters there’s the epistemic question: how do we know there are such people? Some commentators detect their existence in disparity between polling and election results. In Ohio, for instance, polls had shown the two candidates in a near-tie for months, yet Trump won the state by a convincing 8%. Did 8% of Ohioans hide their political intentions? Or is this just a sampling problem, with Trump-sympathetic voters falling between the cracks of telephone polling methods? Political scientists will be working on this question for years (a common method is to ask respondents the views of the people around, taking this as proxy for opinions they are unwilling to own). But to some degree it may be irresolvable. After all, if some Trump voters are shy around pollsters, they may be no more forthcoming with researchers. After two election cycles of unreliable polling, pundits and social epistemologists should be thinking together about the problems of reading other minds.
Supposing there are shy Trump voters, we also have a myriad of ethical questions. For one thing, there is the possibility that some ‘shy’ Trump voters were in fact extremely tactical. Suppose you support Trump’s attacks on the ‘fake’ news media. You might then think it clever to trick the pollster on the telephone, perhaps aiming to lull Democrats into overconfidence and lower voter turnout. If there are many such tactically stealth Trump voters, that’s a serious bad sign for democratic political culture. Deliberative democracy gets its legitimacy from sincere disagreement among avowed equals. When ordinary citizens begin to think first as cynical political operators, always messaging and never deliberating, we lose our grip on the value of reasoning together. This problem isn’t unique to shy Trump voters; it’s increasingly common across the (social) media-savvy political spectrum.
Of course, another possible explanation for ‘shyness’ might be shame. Are some Trump voters embarrassed to admit their preference to strangers? There are many reasons people voted for Trump, and some are indeed shameful. If you voted for him because of his bashing of Muslims or Mexicans or any other minority group, then you ought to be ashamed. Unfortunately, I think people who supported Trump for these reasons are the least likely to keep quiet. Much more ethically complicated are those who disapproved of Trump’s prejudice-mongering, but tolerated it in exchange for Supreme Court nominations or tax policy or simply for a Republican team win. Many on the left will say that these voters too ought to be ashamed. But productive shame requires a delicate balance between ethical guardrail and social cudgel, a subtlety that almost never mixes with partisan spirit. I worry that trying to shame nearly half of America’s voters will only set up the next dangerous electoral surprise.
Democratic Deliberation after Trump
by Gina Schouten
On Saturday, I blinked back happy tears as I watched my kid delight in a show of joy and relief unfolding all around him: people shouting in the streets, dancing, singing, banging cowbells, and—his favorite—blaring car horns. I didn’t expect to feel such an intense wave of joy myself. We’re far from out of the woods. Trump, apparently, will continue to contest the outcome, and plenty will find his bogus claims plausible. He will leave behind him untold human damage, and we’ll have our work cut out for us caring for one another. Mitch McConnell seems poised to return to his favorite role as powerful oppositional ruiner. And more than 70 million citizens cast a vote for a man who quite openly tried to bring down our democratic system. But on Saturday, I blinked back happy tears because I glimpsed a brighter and more just world for our kids. I will never forget my Frank’s face as he watched our neighborhood celebrate this milestone in our work of building a country that’s worthy of him and of all our children.
In the weeks to come, we’ll turn our attention to Georgia. Many of us will also be thinking hard about those 70 million citizens. My research in philosophy concerns the possibility of building and preserving a democratic justificatory community: a social arrangement regulated by terms of cooperation that we can all accept, in principle, because those terms are justified on the back of values that unite us rather than values that divide us. Of course, the values that seem to unite us—freedom, and some version of equality—mean different things to different people. That’s what makes it so difficult.
Lots of people will look at this election and conclude that democratic justificatory community is dead. Plenty of them will draw that conclusion for bad reasons. People who should know better sometimes observe that we’ve failed to realize some ideal and conclude that the ideal itself is flawed. This ideal isn’t flawed. It might ultimately be unachievable or un-retrievable. But we don’t yet have good reason to believe that, because we haven’t yet given it all we have to give. I, like others I know who come from Trump country and love people in Trump country, have worked hard over the past four years to have the tough conversations we all regretted not having prior to 2016. But I know that in my anger, I’ve sometimes not lived up to high standards of thoughtfulness and reflectiveness. I doubt I’m the only one.
There’s a story we tell about poor and working-class white Trump voters according to which such voters vote against their own rational self-interest. Democratic policies would be materially far better for the poor and working classes than Republican policies. These voters fail to vote on their own self-interest, the story goes, out of spite, or maybe because they’re so thoroughly manipulated by the Right.
But there’s clearly more to it than this. It’s in nobody’s interest to be represented by people who despise them, who patronize them, who write off their values and their lives and their fears as backwater hayseed stuff. Now, I don’t think all liberal contenders do despise and patronize the voters in question—and I certainly don’t think Biden does. But we also all have an interest in being represented by people who don’t treat our anxieties carelessly. Trump voters have an interest in being represented by people who exercise care not to condescend, exercise care not to treat them as despicable, and exercise care not to even seem to write them off. And I do think progressives, academics, and “coastal elites” have been careless about this interest. That’s double-carelessness, for those keeping track: We’re careless about the interest Trump voters have in our taking care about their anxieties, and we’re careless in not taking that first interest into account in diagnosing their supposed irrationality.
Once, when I was interviewing for a job at a prestigious university, one of the people I met with mentioned that one line on my CV “calls out for explanation.” This person was referring to the fact that I went to college at Ball State University. Ball State is a great school, and I flourished there. The confusion, it turned out, was about why someone who seemed to have some smarts—or, maybe, who seemed to be middle-class—would have gone to a public college in Indiana…and, for that matter, not even IU or Purdue. In fact, there’s no explanation called for here at all. Plenty of people with plenty of smarts go to the college with the reasonable price tag that’s down the street from home. Plenty do it because of the reasonable price tag; plenty do it because they like home; plenty because they aren’t schooled in institutional hierarchies; and plenty do it for a complicated cocktail of reasons. To treat this vast range of possibilities as a little bit mystifying is a small blip of accidental snobbishness, and such blips add up.
The story matters because it’s so innocent. The person in question is a lovely, thoughtful, kind person. They weren’t offering this as any sort of reason not to hire me; only raising an idle curiosity. The difficulty is that those of us who swim every day in the waters of “believe science” and “check your privilege” would need to exert some effort to be full-on anti-snobs. Of course, we should believe science and we should check our privilege. But liberal ballot measures seem to have outperformed liberal candidates in this election. There are allies to be had. And I have it on good authority that some of them just care quite a lot that they not, on top of lots of other hardship, be talked down to constantly. Our small blips of snobbery and condescension show up in tweets that then become screen shots, etc. If only for strategic reasons, then, the effort to be full-on anti-snobs is effort we should exert. I think we should exert it, too, because rebuilding justificatory community is not just about the reasons we offer to our opponents for the policies we want to adopt. It’s about the work of reasoning together with respect.
Some will say that a quick move toward reconciliation or toward rebuilding the bedrock of shared values is misplaced: We can nurture our anger awhile longer; indeed, maybe we owe it to Trump’s victims to stay angry at his enablers. Trump voters threw a bomb into something I love, and in so doing they jeopardized our kids’ futures and demolished a lot of what I thought my country stood for. The result is parents separated from their children, racism and violence emboldened, and a public health crisis so mishandled that kids are out of school and families are out of food. Like many who will read this, I’m pissed. But. If the question is whether the possibility of democratic deliberation across difference is dead, I think an honest answer has to begin with admitting that some of us on the left really are just a little bit smug, just a little bit dismissive, and that maybe-just-maybe there’s an interest behind some conservatives’ antipathy that’s worth taking more seriously.
Not Biden, Us
by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
The celebrations in the streets announce that we’ve been saved. But from what?
Maybe: fascism. President Trump was responsible for genuinely concerning trends and policies: simply making shit up even when the stakes were high, or installing corrupt loyalists atop regulatory agencies like the EPA, government media outlets like the VOA and continuing to challenge the electoral results via the DOJ. A deeper authoritarian turn is certainly conceivable, especially had he won.
But a shrewd operator Trump is not. Whatever the cunning of his advisors, the man on the throne himself has always been more Gob Bluth than Antonio Salazar – a more powerful check on his authoritarian ambitions than the Democratic House of Representatives ever managed to mount. His most credibly authoritarian actions (with the important exception of his election challenges) were also the aspects of his regime that were least exceptional in US history: brutal suppression of protests fit squarely into a long arc of fascist racial domination in this country; ICE arrests and deportations declined under Trump relative to Obama.
Maybe the election didn’t save us from fascism, but a cultural crisis. “Character and decency are on the ballot,” we were told. Now that the election is won, “the era of demonization is over”, and we can now go back to politics before cancel culture and rude protestors ruined everything.
I’m not holding my breath. As noted in The New York Times: 71 million people voted for Trump, whose candidacy spoke to real grievances and desires. If the Republican party ever finds someone able to both tap into these and, say, read reports rendered in words rather than pictures, we may have ourselves the beginning of an even more serious problem.
So much for saving us from either fascism or incivility. Did the election results save us from anything, then? No, I’d answer. They did, nevertheless, do something profoundly important: give us a winnable playing field.
The “us” is important. Elites in both parties have marked those agitating for minimally humane government policies as enemies (even when those policies are popular!). The President-elect has long since promised corporate kingmakers that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected President, despite the fact that fundamental change is a requirement to address problems like the climate crisis with even mild seriousness. Nothing will change, then, if the corporate elites that have captured our public institutions have anything to say about it.
What do we have to say? Whatever you think of Sanders’ failed primary campaign, he got the slogan right: “Not me, us”. Waleed Shahid puts this in some historical perspective: “Lincoln was not an abolitionist, FDR not a socialist or trade unionist, and LBJ not a civil rights activist.”
So, by all means, celebrate the election, and consider contributing to local organizations working to give the Democratic party a majority in the Senate. But, whoever these elections put in power, get prepared to fight them – and, as Frederick Douglass reminds us, to receive absolutely nothing if we do not.