Exceptional Conservatives

David Brooks is a master of the half-right comment. He says just enough things that are smart that you don’t realize the inanity he is also shoveling into his columns. Like last week’s “The Rich White Civil War.”

His main point is that “tribalism is the fruit of privilege.” Rich people have more time to engage in politics and more to lose; poor people have less time. Brooks doesn’t state it, but poor people are probably going to get screwed no matter who is in office.

It’s a point he draws from Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, a project of More in Common, an international endeavor that seeks to build strong societies by connecting people across lines of difference to highlight what they have in common and thereby fend off polarization and social division. I don’t know enough about the organization to offer much commentary on it, but I’m suspicious of anything that makes unity rather than justice a goal. And I think that some polarization is good for democracy.

Part of my concern is illustrated by what Brooks does after he identifies elites with too much time on their hands as the real problem in American politics. He sets off for the Land of False Comparisons–exactly the kind of thing that many groups focusing on unity do. For us to “come together,” each side has to move–a demand that ignores the fact that, for ages, one side has already been forced to give up rights, dignity, and opportunity. Because he loves being the reasonable voice of moderation, Brooks doesn’t seem to see that his critiques of both sides are not equal at all. For example, he cites Hidden Tribes data that says that

  • 99% of Devoted Conservatives (those most polarized on the right) think immigration is bad, while 99 percent of Progressive Activists (those most polarized on the left) think it is good.
  • 76% percent of Devoted Conservatives think Islam is more violent than other religions, a position just 3% of Progressive Activists hold.
  • 91% of Progressive Activists say sexual harassment is common, while only 12% of Devoted Conservatives agree.
  • 92% percent of Progressive Activists say racism is a not taken seriously enough by Americans, whereas 6% of Devoted Conservatives feel that way.
  • 86% percent of Progressive Activists say life’s outcomes are outside people’s control, but just 2% percent of Devoted Conservatives agree.

Here is the problem with treating both sides like they have a valid point, of trying to find a middle ground on these issues: people’s feelings and opinions about immigration, violence in religion, sexual harassment, racism, and social determinism v. agency are important, but they are not the same things as facts. And while policy decisions need to take feelings into consideration, they have to be based on facts for them to actually work.

We can debate which of these problems are most pressing, which should be solved first, and what is the best way to approach them. People of different political persuasions will prioritize some problems over others and prefer some solutions over others. There may be multiple right ways to address these problems, and there may be multiple ways that are “good enough” without being the best ways. We get to debate the difference between better and best.

But the claim that immigration is bad or good for America is not really debatable, not by people who are looking at data honestly. The research is very clear: over the short term, immigrants, in general, cost individual states more in taxes than they put in–just as all families with young children do. Over time, they put in far more to our economy than they take out. Broadly speaking, they stabilize high-needs neighborhoods, bolstering the tax base and driving down crime. They strengthen our position in the world, bringing American values home with them when they return. They pay more in college tuition, subsidizing higher ed for citizens. They are overrepresented among our best and brightest. In terms of money, crime, and culture, immigrants are a net gain for the US. One side of the political spectrum wants to curtail immigration despite these facts.

Adherents of Islam, on the global stage, right now, are more dangerous than other religious groups. Globally, Christians are the world’s most persecuted group right now, and Muslims are often the perpetrators of violence against them. Massive exceptions exist–like the genocide of the mostly-Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar at the hands of Buddhists–but it is generally true that, globally, violence justified by unusual understandings of Islam is carried out by groups like ISIL and Boko Haram. On the other hand, historically, Christianity has been used to justify the Crusades, slavery, Indian genocide, and the Holocaust. And, more to the point, in the US today, it is white supremacists and extremist Christian groups that present the greatest terrorism threat within our nation.  Despite knowing where the threat comes from, the Trump administration has cut federal funding for research on domestic extremism.

It does not matter what percent of each type of voter thinks that sexual harassment is common. What matters is that 1/4 women and 1/8 men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and nearly every woman I personally know has been sexually harassed. I think that makes sexual harassment pretty “common,” but even if you think that “common” requires a higher portion of the population being harmed, 25% is enough to take it seriously. Only one side of the political spectrum wants to do so; the other side sees sexual harassment and assault of women as a positive behavior that demonstrates masculine strength.

Interestingly enough, the Hidden Tribes report says that the majority of Americans across all political types believe that racism is common–it’s just that Devoted Conservatives think we’re doing enough to solve it. Whether our solutions are acceptably effective is a discussion worth having, but we have data that suggest that we’re not doing enough. If we were, we would expect to see results: equivalent prison sentences for white people and people of color convicted of the same crimes, equivalent pay for whites and people of color who are doing the same job, etc. If we agree that racism is a problem and our research shows that outcomes are still very different for people of color and white people, then we can say that we’re not doing enough.

The final point–how much individual agency we can exercise to control our futures–is a cute question, but, again, it doesn’t measure reality, only perception. Good on conservatives for thinking that they can control their futures! That doesn’t change the fact that they are still breathing air polluted by corporations that they can’t individually hold responsible. It doesn’t change the fact that they can get drafted into a war–if they are poor–that they don’t support. Our social situations do, in fact, influence our life’s outcomes. Devoted conservatives know this, which is exactly why they want their kids to go to good schools (to get a good education, to connect to the “right” kinds of kids and their parents, to marry among them) and live in safe neighborhoods. If these things didn’t matter, Devoted Conservatives would marry across class lines and live in poor neighborhoods. They don’t, because they know that you can’t usually just will your way out bad circumstances.

Facts matter, and this, I think, is where we have the real divide in America. I don’t think that conservatives are stupid. (They’re not. Trump voters are more likely than others to have a college degree.) I think they just think that they’re exceptional. It doesn’t matter if most women are sexually harassed; they are too smart to be one of those women or tough enough to handle it. It doesn’t matter if your parents’ income at your birth is a huge predictor of your life outcomes; they believe that they are the ones who can overcome those obstacles. Indeed, many of them believe they have, ignoring the fact that they were born ahead. (While conservatives acknowledged racism in the Hidden Tribes research, they were less open to the idea of white privilege.)

Above, Steve Martin leads his audience in the non-conformist’s oath. The joke in the skit is that people love to see themselves as unique–so much so that, in trying to be unlike others, they conform. While being independent is a romantic ideal, it’s not how the world works. We need each other, and our social situations influence our life outcomes. That’s not hippie dippy baloney. It’s measurable facts.

Conservatives can know the facts about gun ownership–that, in every way (accident, homicide, suicide), it increases the risk of death for the owner–and still believe that they are the exception to that rule. Likewise, they can look at all the research that I share here and agree with it–but still believe that they, personally, are above average.

And that’s a big difference in how conservatives and progressives see the world: are you above it, or are you part of it? Are you like other people, or are you exceptional? If you think you’re exceptional, you can easier justify leaving others behind to fend for themselves. If you see yourself as like other people, solidarity in solving your mutual problems makes more sense.

For a time, wealth and privilege can protect people from being average. If you are wealthy enough, you’ll get to breathe cleaner air and lower your risk of being a victim of crime. But that doesn’t last forever. Eventually, someone you know will overdose on opioids. Eventually, someone you love will be sexually assaulted. Eventually, climate change comes for us all.



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