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Joining Self-Flagellating Liberals Everywhere

"I'm trying" graffiti. Photo by Tyler Callich.
Photo by Tyler Callich.

Like many of you, I was thrown for a loop by the results of this election. Over the past five days, I’ve been struggling with my feelings. I don’t believe we’re on the edge of a national apocalypse, but I didn’t believe that Trump was going to win — in fact, I was positive that he wouldn’t. How can I trust my intuitions about the future?

When I say “intuitions” I don’t mean random uninformed guesses. I follow the news pretty closely. I saw the polls. But it turns out that my sources of information were just as unmoored as I feel now. How much of my wrongness was due to what I was mentally synthesizing, and how much was the way I synthesized it? Spoiler alert: I’m not sure yet.

Since Tuesday I’ve started following conservatives on Twitter, both happy #MAGA ones and despondent #NeverTrump ones. (If that seems like an empty gesture, it’s because you don’t realize just how much time I spend on Twitter.) I can no longer be so arrogant as to avoid making an attempt to understand people whose views I disagree with; whose political agendas I find abhorrent.

And I can no longer conflate the views with the people, writing them off as racists and sexists beyond salvage. Yes, it’s cognitively dissonant to say that people who materially support a sexist, racist politician are not sexist and racist themselves. But there’s levels to this shit, as Meek Mill might remark. Not all prejudice is overt or conscious, and from what I see Trump supporters saying, blame-fueled identity politics helped this backlash arise.

I am more interested in effective discourse than I am in absolute moral rectitude.

I think any entrenchment on the left is a mistake — reality is clearly more complex than we realized. Than we were willing to realize. It’s not that I don’t think despicable white fear and rape culture played into this. I would have to be absolutely blind to think that — like I said, I read the news.

I think my fundamental mistake was not realizing just how close this election was. I couldn’t see that a buffoonish “Cheeto Jesus” could resonate so strongly with people who don’t share my cultural or class background.

It would also be a mistake to forget the closeness of the election after Trump’s victory. A blogger I highly respect, Scott Alexander, said on his Tumblr:

I didn’t predict that Trump would win. But I predicted he would come within 2-3% of winning. I don’t know why somebody whose pet theory is able to explain why someone can get 45% of the vote, shouldn’t also be able to explain why he got 47% of the vote.

And I think almost everybody agreed Trump would get at least 40-something percent of the vote, so what’s left to explain? Sure, we’re not Nate Silver who can use weird voodoo to figure out exactly what every single poll shows, but we understand the underlying trends just fine.

Slightly higher turnout could have shifted the results. Both candidates were extremely unpopular and many voters declined to show up to the polls. As it stands, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote — although it’s worth noting that the Trump campaign didn’t make an effort to turn out conservative voters in states like California that would never go red. Still, this wasn’t a blowout.

And yet Donald Trump’s win shocked me, to the extent that I feel shattered and unable to trust myself. (It’s also makes the country’s future terrifying. We’ll get to that.) The person Scott Alexander was conversing with, Tumblr user nostalgebraist, articulated part of my feelings pretty well:

I knew Trump had a substantial chance of winning. But I hadn’t internalized that on a gut level. The qualitative and the quantitative comfortably supported one another: there could be substantial polling error, but if there isn’t then Hillary’s gonna win, which of course she is because just look at Trump, right? I wouldn’t have bet against Trump at any odds longer than Silver’s, and yet when I was on the bus home Tuesday evening I felt at ease, not nervous but actually slightly buzzed, as if I were going to an exciting party that evening. And by the time I went to bed, I felt like the cosmic balance of the universe had been disturbed. I knew it could happen, but it wasn’t supposed to.

That reflection ties into an essay that struck a deep chord with me, “On Trying Not To Be Wrong” by Sarah Constantin:

Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, the Secretary of State went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI. Surreal, right?


It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong. […]

There may be a crisis in politics. But before we can do anything sensible about that, we need to understand that there is a crisis in credence. If the world looks weird to you and me today, that is not a matter for rueful laughter, it is a sign that we are probably badly wrong about lots of things.

And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.

That’s where I’m at. I need to figure out how to be right again.

Most of what I wrote above was personal. In terms of political action, here are some ideas:

My partner and I have loosely discussed moving in the next year or so, if it’s financially feasible. California affords me few opportunities for high-leverage activism, since we’re a staunchly blue state. I’m tentatively interested in moving to a red or purple state where I could potentially help flip a state legislature.

That’s it. Thanks for bearing with me. Let us all take a moment to mourn for the Affordable Care Act.

The Means Are All There Is

Tit for tat. Artwork by Jungshan.
Artwork by Jungshan.

Blood in the Polity

Earlier this month, Trump supporters were attacked by protesters outside of a political rally in San Jose. Leftists and liberals (the leftists would say “neoliberals”) clashed over the issue. Those with anarchist and Marxist bents argued that violence is justified in face of xenophobia and fascism.

Dara Lind summarized:

“A lot of political commentators recognize that Donald Trump poses a categorical threat to established norms of American democracy, governance, and society. They believe that he represents (whether intentionally or not) an ideology that is hostile to groups of nonwhite Americans. […] You don’t have to agree with protesters beating up Trump supporters, or even sympathize with them, to understand this. There are people who feel Trump’s rise puts their lives in danger. And many people make decisions about what actions are ‘appropriate’ differently when they feel personally under threat.”

Jonathan Chait critiqued this view:

“Yes, electing Trump would amount to a dire peril for American democracy. But not only is violence unlikely to prevent his election as a practical matter (it makes Trump a figure of sympathy, and at any rate, his supporters are far more heavily armed). It would also be a disaster as a moral matter. Suppose that Trump’s election could be prevented by breaking up his speeches and intimidating his supporters. Such a ‘victory’ would actually constitute the blow to democracy it purports to stop, eroding the long-standing norm that elections should be settled at the ballot box rather than through street fighting.”

Chait continued:

“Liberalism sees political rights as a positive good — rights for one are rights for all. ‘Democracy’ means political rights for every citizen. The far left defines democracy as the triumph of the subordinate class over the privileged class. Political rights only matter insofar as they are exercised by the oppressed. The oppressor has no rights. […] A liberal sees Trump’s ability to deliver a speech before supporters as a fundamental political right worth defending. A radical sees this ‘right’ as coming at the expense of subordinate classes, and thus not worth protecting.”

Donald Trump waving to supporters at a rally. Photo by Ed Ouimette.
Photo by Ed Ouimette.

The Point of Liberalism

Why am I bringing this up? Both arguments have been tweeted to death, including by me. Well… the conflict has stuck in my brain. I think my takeaway is something like this: Don’t normalize tactics that you don’t want your enemy to use. Resist upping the ante. Your principles are only as good as how you deploy them. Or, to quote Slate Star Codex:

“Civilization didn’t conquer the world by forbidding you to murder your enemies unless they are actually unrighteous in which case go ahead and kill them all. Liberals didn’t give their lives in the battle against tyranny to end discrimination against all religions except Jansenism because seriously fuck Jansenists. Here we have built our Schelling fence and here we are defending it to the bitter end. […] Liberalism does not conquer by fire and sword. Liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules, slowly growing until eventually an equilibrium is disturbed.”

(See also: “We should all feel unsafe around anybody who relishes uncoordinated meanness — beating people in dark alleys, picketing their funerals, shaming them, harassing them, doxxing them, getting them fired from their jobs.”)

Ends Are Made of Means

“Means to an end” is a familiar phrase. The end is the goal, and the means are how you get there. For example, democratic government is presented as the means to a just society. Democracy is not virtuous in and of itself; it’s virtuous because of what it can achieve. (Yes, I know the US is not a pure democracy, but it’s grounded in democratic principles.)

But really, the means are all there is. What we do while trying to achieve a certain state — whether governmental or epistemic — ends up being the state. Democracy is both process and result. Make sure your process constitutes a result that will satisfy you.

Fiddler on the Roof & American Conservatism

Disclaimer: blatant liberal bias ahead + this post won’t make sense if you’re not familiar with Fiddler on the Roof.

Zero Mostel performs “Tradition” in the 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Zero Mostel performing “Tradition” on Broadway (1964).

I grew up listening to songs from Fiddler on the Roof, so the music and lyrics are firmly ingrained in my brain. But I didn’t grok the political implications until after 1) watching the movie, 2) learning more about history, and 3) observing human power relations. Just as an example, my childhood interpretation of “To Life” didn’t incorporate longstanding Russian antisemitism. I had no concept of how radical it was for Russian soldiers and Jewish peasants to dance together.

In the very beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye addresses the audience:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition.”

Doesn’t that sound pretty damn parallel to the segment of America without white-collar skills, the segment increasingly devastated by technological progress? From what I hear, the Rust Belt hasn’t picked up much since heavy industry and manufacturing emigrated.

Go ahead and imagine it. You can’t get a job, or maybe you can only get a crappy job. The government is full of elites whose priorities diverge from yours. (This is where the analogy to Fiddler on the Roof breaks down, since obviously the Russian czar was genuinely oppressive. Which is not to say that the American government isn’t genuinely oppressive, but it targets different demographics.)

Amidst this uncertainty, you cling to your traditions, because that’s all that remains from the days of relative prosperity. That includes intellectual traditions (also explored in Fiddler on the Roof). So any deviation from antiquated Christian biblical-ish morality is perceived as a threat.

As usual when writing about politics, I’m going to link to Scott Alexander’s brilliant essay “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” and call it a day.

“And if our good fortune never comes, here’s to whatever comes! Drink, l’chaim, to life!”

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