Civility, Racism, and the Red Hen

The civility controversy is disheartening. Name-calling may lead to a Republican victory in 2018, and help re-elect Trump in 2020. 

On June 28, Thomas B. Edsall posted “Don’t Feed the Troll in the Oval Office,” an extremely important piece. According to Edsall, Trump’s provocations are calculated and could work, aided by liberals who take the bait. 

Edsall reports that most Democrats believe opposition to immigration is racist, whereas “Trump’s tactics are based on the conviction of many of his voters that opposition to immigration is not a form of racism. They deeply resent being called racist for anti-immigrant views they consider patriotic and, indeed, principled.” Those supporters do not consider non-Europeans essentially inferior, which they acknowledge would be racist. Rather, they merely prefer to preserve the nation’s character, as other communities have sought to preserve their character, which they do not consider racist.

Eric Kaufmann writes that his survey data shows

that a majority of American and British people of all races believe that when the white majority seeks lower immigration to help maintain their population share, this is racially self-interested rather than racist behavior. This distinction is important because racism is a taboo, whereas ethnic self-interest, like individual self-interest, is viewed as normal.

[They] feel accused of racism. This breeds resentment.

Kaufmann contends that the racism charge has been a crucial factor in driving a rise in right-wing populism, in the United States and abroad:

Anti-racist overreach on the immigration question arguably underlies the populist western backlash against elites. ...They hold elites responsible for enforcing anti-racist norms — in the workplace, government and mainstream media — beyond the bounds of what they consider appropriate…. I think liberal norm policing on immigration is a major contributing factor to right wing populism.

Edsall quotes Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke, who found

Allegations of racism...have the opposite of their intended effect.... [Therefore] it may be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively condemn politicians when they do in fact attempt to race bait, or when they…support policies detrimental to racial and ethnic minorities.

Numerous experiments have found that traditional polling has failed to capture the public’s actual views. Edsall reports these studies suggest that “many people feel social pressure to conform to ‘social desirability’ expectations and to mask their opposition to immigration.” One study found that support for restricting immigration rose from 42 percent to 61 percent when real opinions surfaced. 

“Liberal norm policing,” or “motivating people to reduce prejudice by emphasizing external control,” results in worsening rather than lessening “explicit and implicit prejudice.” Lisa Legault, a psychologist, has stated:

Controlling prejudice reduction practices are tempting because they are quick and easy to implement. They tell people how they should think and behave and stress the negative consequences of failing to think and behave in desirable ways.

But that approach to prejudice reduction can backfire. According to Legault, a positive alternative is to emphasize autonomy:

People need to feel that they are freely choosing to be non-prejudiced, rather than having it forced upon them…. Strategies urging people to comply with anti-prejudice standards are worse than doing nothing at all [because they prompt] a reflexive, reactive effect that increased prejudice…. This “rebellion” against being told what to think...represents a direct counter-response (i.e., defiance) to threatened autonomy. Interventions that eliminate people’s freedom to choose egalitarian goals or to value diversity on their own terms may incite hostility...or a desire to rebel against prejudice reduction itself.

Kaufmann has argued that Democrats and liberals should use a more nuanced strategy:

Pro-immigration forces should avoid using charges of racism to sideline discussions of ethno-demographic interests. Instead, they should accept the importance of cultural concerns but argue positively for immigration on humanitarian, national-interest or liberal grounds. They should cite assimilation data to reassure anxious majorities.

Edsall concludes his essay with this recommendation:

Faced with Trump as an adversary, Democrats and liberals must calculate carefully. One of the most important questions facing the American left is how complicit — albeit unwillingly and unconsciously — it has been in his rise. Insofar as the left engages in a war of incivility, it cedes the field of battle to a president who relishes uncivil combat. Plenty of open racists have joined Trump’s ranks, millions of them, but his supporters also include millions of men and women who believe they are not racist and who react in anger when they are reflexively accused of racism. No one knows what Trump’s ultimate intentions are — dangerous possibilities abound. For this reason and many others, liberals and Democrats should avoid stepping into Trump’s trap.

On the “1A: NPR” “Captivating America: Civility War” podcast, the guests who did most of the talking refused to discuss civility, claiming it’s a false issue. On June 25, Podcast America disparaged efforts to understand Trump voters. On “Late Night with Seth Meyers” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes defended the owner who asked Sarah Sanders to leave the Red Hen restaurant. He also affirmed yelling at and hectoring public officials in general, which elicited strong support from the audience. And in his interview of Maxine Waters, Hayes failed to challenge Waters’ call for people to get in the face of Trump Administration officials and tell them “you are not welcome here.” Hillary Clinton still has not really apologized for calling most Trump voters deplorable and irredeemable, an opinion that seems to be embraced by most Democrats. And Democrats commonly label Trump supporters racist.

The first problem with those judgments is that they are generally incorrect. Others can hold deplorable opinions without being deplorable people. One can make a racist statement without being a racist. Racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Unless others say, “I believe my race is inherently superior,” or makes that belief abundantly clear with other statements, I cannot conclude they are racists. I can’t read their mind. But I can say, “That is an unfair (or inaccurate) statement.”

The second problem with those anti-Trump judgments is that, as they are typically expressed, they are counter-productive. It would have been much more effective for the Red Hen owner to pull up a chair, ask Sanders a series of pointed questions, and try to engage in a real dialog. If Sanders objected, then she could have left of her own volition.

Even though 35% of Republicans oppose separating families at the border, and the percentage of voters who identify as Republican under the Trump Administration has declined, many Democrats discount any hope of getting votes from former Trump supporters. There’s no need to “focus” on those voters. But neither is there need to write them off, or refuse to try to understand them. Not only is that unethical. It’s bad politics.