The Secrets of America’s Elite, Revealed

America is divided. The coastal elites who have controlled Washington and much of the nation’s economy were, with the 2016 election, resoundingly defeated by a newly invigorated populism, personified in Donald Trump.

As a member of this demoralized elite–I live and work within the Washington, DC Beltway–I recognize that the rest of America has a low opinion of my social class, and also recognize that, when it comes down to it, America, the real America, just doesn’t get us.

So, in an effort to begin healing that divide through increased understanding, I’m taking the risky step of breaking the coastal elite code and revealing our secrets to ordinary Americans.

What follows, made public for the first time, is our core cultural artifact. It contains all of our most cherished beliefs and values and informs the whole of how we view the world. It’s our urtext and our secret handshake.

I will likely get in serious trouble for revealing what I’m about to reveal. But I can’t let that stop me. With an outsider administration ascendant, with populism shaking off its shackles, I feel I have no choice but to do whatever I can to help those now taking the reigns of power better understand the people they’ve overthrown.

So, apprehensive as I may be, I plunge ahead in exposing our secrets. Here goes:

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Dear Rust Belt Americans

Immigrants didn’t take your jobs. Technology and an industrializing world took your jobs. The simple fact is, the skills you have aren’t worth as much to people as they used to be.

Deporting peaceful immigrants, destroying their families and livelihoods, won’t bring back Americans being able earn comfortably middle class jobs via manual labor. But supporting deportations and severely limited immigration does make you callous and cruel and undercuts whatever claim to sympathy you might have. 

Instead of insisting the rest of the country owes you the anomalous and now impossible economy of the 1950s and 60s, maybe just try instead moving to where the jobs are?

Elites vs. the Working Class

Here’s two common “sides” in the argument about the current cultural and political showdown and divide between elites and the working class:

  1. Elites are unjustifiably condescending toward and dismissive of the working classes and don’t recognize how much their preferred policies may have made things more difficult for them, and this has legitimately angered the working classes.
  2. Segments of the working classes possess cultural pathologies that have hurt and continue to hurt them, pathologies that are not the fault of the elites, and some reactions of the working classes to the anger the elites have provoked—supporting and voting for certain candidates and public policies—are irrational, ignorant, stupid, bigoted, or hateful, and will in the near and long term do more harm to the working classes (as well as everyone else) than any of the policies the elites have supported or would prefer, or any of the policies and behaviors by the elites that have angered the working classes in the first place.

They’re generally presented as mutually exclusive. But both of these points can simultaneously be true—and, likely, both are true. To admit the truth of one does not, and should not, immediately entail denying the truth of the other.

Marginalizing the Marginalized

There was an argument a time back that said the best way to kill the religious right’s political influence was to let it nominate a presidential candidate and then get creamed in the general election. That’d show that there’s no there there, and then the country could safely ignore their feet stomping. (Instead cosmopolitanism triumphed in the culture war, which was overall good, but has also lead to quite a bit of carrying-it-too-far-ness.)

Could the same thing happen with the segment of the low-education, nationalist, white working class that’s gotten its irrational and childish way with the (probable) nomination of Trump? His campaign looks headed for an epic defeat, and one utterly of its own making. His support comes largely from a shrinking demographic, one the country is slowly leaving behind, for reasons both bad and good.

I’m pessimistic, because this is politics and politics is always a source of pessimism. But the values that represent the core of Trump’s support represent a massive threat to America, to our way of life, our economic future, and the principles at the heart of the country’s founding. If Trump goes down as spectacularly as it appears likely he will, the best that could come of it would be the further marginalization of what increasingly looks like a rightly marginalized voice for a set of beliefs and values America would be far better off without.

Fingers crossed.

Empathy for Trump Voters?

There’s a lot of talk about how elites aren’t fair to Trump voters. That what we see as an attraction to his racism, xenophobia, and, well, stupidity, is in fact a much more reasonable anger at elites who have promised prosperity while working class Americans have seen their prospects decline. Or anger at a culture war that has moved too quickly, its victors too dismissive of its losers. Or anger that it’s not politically correct to say negative things about blacks, or women, or gays, but that it’s perfectly fine–applauded, even–to crack wise about middle America.

I appreciate that line of thought, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, think elites suffer from a genuine lack of empathy for the working class and the struggles it faces in a modernizing economy.

But here’s the problem with it: No matter how deep and real the problems Trump supporters are angry about, their response–embracing Trump–remains contemptible.  Set aside the fact that Trump’s proposed policies, such as we can make sense of them, would not actually make things better for working class Americans. Most Americans, across ideologies, lack much understanding of the outcomes of public policy. No, by embracing Trump, I mean embracing the stuff that’s ugly and vicious, no matter one’s perspective on economic cause and effect. I’m talking about his calls to murder the innocent families of terror suspects. I’m talking about his insane plan to deport poor immigrants and prevent entry into the country. I’m talking about his threats to use the office of the president to attack anyone who’s spoken out against him, and to “open up” libel laws because he’s a coward who can’t take criticism.

Cheering Trump as a result of legitimate grievances is like deciding that, because your boss fired you unfairly, you’re going to murder his children. We can say that, yes, you’re right to be mad, and we should empathize with the unjust hardship, but that empathy doesn’t–shouldn’t, can’t, if we believe in basic morality–extend to your reaction to it. America’s elites are often arrogant and ignorant and treat the working class poorly and need to stop. But that in no way excuses the embrace of a man rotten to his core.

Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job

Immigrants did not take well-paying American jobs.

Rather, the amount employers can afford to pay someone to do that job (i.e., the amount of return that job produces for the employer) fell—for a variety of reasons, many the result of technological growth. It fell to the point where native-born Americans were demanding more than the employers could justify. The only people willing to work at the lower wages that would still allow the employer stay in the black are immigrants.

So, yes, immigrants have many jobs that used to be done by native-born Americans, but they did not take them. And kicking out the immigrants will not get those jobs back.

The Tech World’s Weirdly Myopic View of Government

Whenever the government gets involved in something they understand, techies turn quite libertarian. “We need to stop the FBI from creating dangerous precedent by forcing Apple to unlock an iPhone.” Or, “Regulators will just screw up Uber and Airbnb, because they don’t understand what they’re doing and, anyway, they’re just going to regulate in favor of the dinosaur firms.”

But the moment we talk about something outside the domain knowledge of techies, they settle back into progressive shibboleths. “Government ought to run the health care industry.” Or, “Of course the state should be able to take away everyone’s guns. What could go wrong?”

A good rule of thumb: If you notice that the government works remarkably poorly whenever it gets involved with an issue you know a ton about, you should probably assume it’ll work just as poorly — with just as many errors and bad incentives — when it gets involved in an issue you’re largely ignorant of.

Political Disagreement over Facts vs. Morals

Too often in political debate, we assume the absolute veracity of our empirical beliefs. There’s no possibility that we might not have enough information to justify our views or that our interpretive framework might have imperfections. Furthermore, because our views are both correct and seem obviously correct to us, they must also be obviously correct to others.
From that bedrock of certainty, we then evaluate policy proposals different from our own to be a product not of differing, but good faith, empirical views or interpretive frameworks, held by reasonable people, but as explicit desires to work against the goals of our preferred policies. Thus if we believe that Policy A will lead to Result X, then anyone who prefers Policy B does so not because they believe in good faith and after reasonable study that Policy B is a better way to get to Result X, but that they instead know or by any reasonable standard ought to know that Policy B will undermine the achievement of X—or more likely specifically desire to undermine X.

This leads to serious problems, because it means that our empirical beliefs aren’t open to critique, unless that critique comes from someone who already shares our policy preferences. Because if our interlocutor doesn’t share our policy preferences, then before the conversation can get off the ground, we’ve already decided he is either stupid or immoral. But, of course, if our empirical priors or interpretive framework are wrong, then someone with the right (or at least more right) priors will likely come to a different policy conclusion.

The result is politics not as an attempt to improve the state of the world but instead as moral posturing. We believe that certain policy preferences signal moral worth, and so adopt our policy preferences based on how the people we want to appear moral to will judge us.

Rectifying this does not mean abandoning morality in politics or ceasing to judge the moral character of our political opponents in any capacity. Because there are policy preferences that are immoral and reflect poorly on the moral quality of those who hold them. We should call those out when we see them.

The difference between that sort of moral judgment, however, and the kind I outlined above is where morals enter. We can begin with moral judgements and derive our politics from there. We can say, for example, that locking people in cages because they exhibit non-violent behavior we find off-putting is morally wrong, and so policies based on the belief that such thing is acceptable are wrong, and that people who prefer those policies are open to moral critique. Likewise with policies motivated by other immoralities, such as collectivism and nationalism.

That’s the kind of moral judgment we ought to be making in politics. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for moral judgment is just feather ruffling and an attempt to inoculate one’s ill-considered beliefs against reasonable critique. The line between the two can be difficult—and personally painful—to draw, but it’s safe to say that most of what passes for morality in political discourse falls on the wrong side of it.

Real Violence, Simulated Violence, and Thinking War is Awesome

Most of us enjoy violence. The top movies each year largely come from genres dependent on scenes of people getting hurt, whether comic book action, crime thrillers, horror, or sci-fi and fantasy epics. We play violent video games, shooting and punching and blowing up imaginary people or the avatars of other players.

But the violence we enjoy is fake. That’s important. I’m happy to watch a movie about people getting beaten up and murdered. I love crime fiction and shooting people in Grand Theft Auto. Yet show me the same stuff in real life–hell, ask me to imagine the same stuff in real life–and it’s not at all the same. In fact, I hate it. Violence–real violence–repels me, as it does most other people.

Things weren’t always like this, of course. Historically, we have countless instances of real violence as entertainment–think gladiators and public hangings–as well as the kind of common, everyday slaughter that indicates a lack of widespread aversion to violent acts. In fact, the growing distaste for violence, which eventually became disgust and outright horror, was necessary to us growing morally, as people and as civilizations. Good people do not commit violent acts–except perhaps in extreme instances of defense of self or others. Much less do they enjoy violent acts, actual violent acts, with real people suffering real pain.

Except, I’ve come to believe, some of us, at some level, still do. My supposition–and it must remain one because I’m not sure how to research its veracity–is that a great deal of foreign policy hawkishness, support for CIA torture, cheering on of brutal police behavior, and so on, is the result of people not possessing an instinctive recognition of the distinction between legitimately-exciting-but-pretend violence and the horror of real violence. In other words, there are people out there who get just the sort of pleasure in carrying out–or, most often, witnessing or thinking about–actual violent acts that you or I get from playing a first-person shooter or watching a terrific action scene. These are the people who, for example, talk about war as if it’s awesome. They get excited at the prospect of another bombing campaign. They love military hardware and can’t wait to see it put to use. Their first reaction to any problem overseas is to call for blowing people up.

This likely results from one or both of two particular failures, one of character, the other of reasoning. The first is a devaluing of the humanity of others, particularly others of different nations, religions, cultures, or colors. This is an outright moral failing. A morally good person will recognize the humanity of others and see violence against them as repugnant. A bad person will think some people are less worthy of basic dignity and so will be less concerned by violence against them.

The second failure doesn’t necessarily reflect on the person’s character so much as it does on the person’s wisdom in putting his moral motivations into practice. Here, the person doesn’t explicitly believe unsimulated violence is okay. Instead, he has a difficult time recognizing recognizing it. His mind treats real violence, especially real violence depected in media such as in news reports, as if it were simulated violence. Of course, if asked about this directly, the person won’t admit to thinking the violence in the news is fake. He’s not stupid. But in the moment, when watching it, or when thinking about a bombing campaign or the brutality of cops busting heads, he’ll subconsciously fool himself and approach it the same way the rest of us do simulated violence.

There’s an interesting difference in how progressives and conservatives go wrong in thinking about violence. By and large, progressives are more concerned about direct violence done by the state than conservatives. They tend to be more wary of war and lament civilian casualties. (Though partisanship complicates this, obviously, causing Democrats to show more support for state violence when it’s perpetrated by a Democratic president.) Progressives also tend to decry police violence against minorities and marginalized groups. But they also overlook a great deal of state violence. Every law and regulation they clamor for, after all, is backed by force and ultimately only carries weight as a law or regulation if there are men with guns prepared to shoot people who don’t comply. So progressives think real violence isn’t okay–or at least pay lip service to being turned off by it–but at the same time fail to recognize the violence baked into their vision for a well-functioning, well-covered, and largely state-run society.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seem more likely to recognize the pervasiveness of state violence, but care less about violence itself. They’re the ones–again, I’m dealing in broad generalties here–who champion bombing compaigns and respond to police bruality with, “Well, he/they had it coming.” Unlike progressives, they appear not to care about the harm. Or, worse, they see the violence as righteous and just. As deserved.

As I write this, it occurs to me that these opposed attitudes to real violence get sometimes flipped when the subject is simulated violence. By and large, cultural progressives don’t mind violence on television, in the movies, or in video games. They may not want their children watching or playing particularly violent media, but they don’t see it as the downfall of society or even much of a threat to their own kids’ wellbeing, and so don’t call for its censorship. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are frequently among the first to blame video games after a school shooting and say how Grant Theft Auto leads to more crime. Much of their ire at the media is, of course, more about displays of sex and alternative sexualities, but a good portion of it is reserved for violence. To risk too much of a generalization, progressives hate violence when it’s real and conservatives hate it when it’s fake.

I’m not quite sure what to make of any of this. And, like I said, it’s all based on general impressions on my part. I don’t know how one would set about proving or disproving that neoconservatives champion war in part because they get excited at the prospect of bombing people. Certainly, none of them would admit to it. But if I’m right, even a little, then it raises serious concerns about governing the country. It’s one thing to disagree about the data on which policy produces better results. Reasonable people can have rather divergent opinions. Likewise, we can have meaningful conversations about the proper distribution of state power versus personal freedom. But there’s no rational or moral groundwork for the view that violence engaging each other via violence is okay. It’s just not, full stop. And if there are people out there who don’t only think it’s okay, but at some level think it’s fun, then we’ve got problems. Big ones. We can, and must, be better than that.

A Reply to My Essay on the Immorality of Voting

My friend and colleague Jonathan Blanks has written a response to my essay yesterday on the morally troubling aspects of voting. In the delightfully titled “Pay No Attention to the Man Who Won’t Stand Behind the Voting Curtain,” Blanks takes me to task for putting philosophy before practicality.

Philosophy has its place, as it informs our beliefs and ideals. However, removing yourself—and, more damning, those whom agree with you most—from the election process eliminates the largest incentive for politicians to care what you and those like you believe.

His argument is that even if my vote doesn’t decide the election–and the chance of it doing so is so small as to effectively not exist–government still pays attention to voting collectives.

But in toss-up districts and states, enough people who vote libertarian can, by shifting the margin, change the outcome of an election. A party that is on the losing end of that would be wise to cater to libertarian issues in the future.

Whether he’s right is a political science question, not a philosophy one. And he may be right that there are times practicality trumps moral purity. (Though if and when that’s true is, of course, a philosophical question!) But I think this is a case where we can both be right. As I wrote at the end of my piece,

If you cast a vote today, there’s a pretty high chance that in morally significant ways you’re acting just like those friends mugging the old man. You may think there are good reasons for doing this, that a world where you vote for violations of basic human dignity and autonomy will be more livable—happier, freer, wealthier, more equal—than one where you don’t. But you’re still party to countless immoralities.

Sometimes committing a moral wrong is justified. Sometimes we have very good reasons to do something unethical. (The inability to recognize and shed light on these situations is one of the chief reasons utilitarianism remains an unsatisfactory moral philosophy.) But that doesn’t mean they’re not still, to some extent, immoral.