Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Pinker's populism

There's one more chapter from Stephen Pinker's Enlightenment Now I think deserves its own short post before I look at it more generally. Pinker is almost remorseless in his assertion that the world is getting better and is likely to continue to do so. And in at least some respects he's dead right. So what does he make of Donald Trump ?

Pinker's explanation for the election of this bizarre orange blob isn't complete, nor is it pleasant, but it might just be true. It boils to something so simple that it's fashionable among intellectuals to dismiss it as their own bias : racism. It might be nice to think that it was the economically worse-off, and that by improving the well-being of those at the bottom this wouldn't have happened, but there doesn't seem to be much evidence for it.

There are several key things to remember in any analysis of the Trump election. Russian interference (and the influence of social media in general) cannot be neglected - Niall Ferguson is convinced this is a major factor. That Hilary won the popular vote by 3 million is also essential. But perhaps the most important is just how close the vote was. For a so-called man* as horrendously, tragically offensive as Trump, to gain anything more than a handful of votes from lunatics - much less nearly half the vote - demands explanations with deeper roots than campaign tactics or foreign meddling. This is not to say that those factors couldn't have provided the decisive edge and therefore be responsible for the result, but there is simply no way such transient effects could gain as many votes as were actually won.

* Anything can be made offensive by prefixing it with "so-called".

For all that those at Trump's rallies may appear to be working class, they are not the demographic that won Trump the election. In fact the BBC ran a nice piece shortly after the election (I thought I did a post about it but apparently not) which showed this very clearly :

What's more : "In fact, just over half of those with incomes of less than $30,000 (£24,000) voted for Mrs Clinton. Conversely, those on more than $100,000 (£80,000) a year only preferred Mr Drumpf by the narrowest margins."

Pinker's analysis implies that Trump was actually rather more popular with the highest earners, saying, "a majority of voters in the four highest income brackets  voted for Trump", though this is not necessarily incompatible if that majority was small. It is at least clear that the economically "left behind" were not responsible. What Pinker says is key, that the BBC article did not dwell on, is education :

This is hardly a massive difference (it's far more pronounced in the case of Brexit). But perhaps it doesn't have to be, given the closeness of the overall result. It remains baffling that so many with graduate-level educations could consider voting for Trump. On the other hand, education may not play such a dramatic role in shaping ideologies. It was not so long ago that even tenured professors were unashamedly racist because pretty nearly everyone else was too. The BBC article doesn't say anything about racism but it does show one striking graph :


Pinker, being of the evangelical sort, is not at all afraid to say it more directly : Trump voters were a bunch of bigots. I think he rather overstates the case for the role of education here but it's certainly worth considering :
Education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes is harder to demonise them.... Education, when it does what it is supposed to do, instils a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery. 
Elsewhere Pinker says that learning by rote makes people less critical - they do not generalise from specific examples by themselves but must be told explicitly, or better yet be encouraged to find the patterns by themselves. This could explain why education is not nearly as strong a predictor of Trumpism than race. Since the shift was so much greater with Brexit, does this mean British universities are better at fostering critical thinking ? I dunno. It could instead by that they are more multi-cultural. Again, I dunno.
Silver found that the regional map of Trump support did not overlap particularly well with maps of unemployment, religion, gun ownership, or the proportion of immigrants [I would expect it would show that higher immigration = lower Trump support]. But it did align with the map of Google searches for the word nigger... The regions  of the country that gave Trump his Electoral College victory are those with the most resistance to the decades-long process of integration and the process of minority interests (particularly racial preferences, which they see as reverse discrimination against them).
An important point here is that while a move towards equality can feel like oppression, education can fight this. Indeed, if you don't train people specifically about this, I would say it's an entirely natural response. It isn't their fault. One still has to wonder what kind of degree-level education doesn't include this, but it's at least plausible. Pinker goes on to say that rather than considering the economic inequality that's arisen, we should consider the cultural inequality. He quotes political analyst Paul Taylor :
The overall drift is toward more liberal views on a range of issues, but that doesn't mean the whole country is buying in.
A very interesting caveat that some have raised is that America may, in fact, be polarised more on issues of identity than issues; more vulnerable to corporate lobbying of its leaders than being unable to forge a consensus in its electorate.

But more authoritarian views are not the whole story. Pinker says that another crucial aspect is pessimism :
69% of Trump supporters felt that the direction of the country was "seriously off track", and they were similarly jaundiced about the workings of the federal government and the lives of the next generation of Americans... I believe that the media and intelligentsia were complicit in populists; depiction of modern Western nations as so unjust and dysfunctional than nothing short of a radical lurch could improve them... The problem with dystopian rhetoric is that if people believe that the country is a flaming dumpster, they will be receptive to the perennial appeal of demagogues.
Which I think is a very valid point. While things are probably not going as well as Pinker would have us believe (more on that elsewhere), that living standards have undergone an overall arc of improvement is unquestionable. This doesn't mean that there aren't pronounced variations or very real problems that need urgent addressing. But we tend to focus on the problems with myopic exclusivity, and forget the stupendous improvements at our peril.

What of the future ? Happily, Pinker dismisses the notion that we get more right-wing or populist as we get older. Rather, it seems that older generations were more authoritarian to begin with : they've carried their views with them, but even those cohorts have actually become more liberal than when they started (for caveats on effects specific to individual generations see this).


Taken all together, the election of an abject monster can be explained. America has been getting more liberal, but not equally. Its education has improved, but not sufficiently in terms of multicultural values. It may not have the huge KKK rallies of the past, but it still has a significant demographic unable to distinguish equality from oppression. Its media have been painting an absurdly pessimistic view of just how bad things are whilst forgetting the gains that have been made, encouraging people to believe the system is so broken that the only fix is to smash it to bits - or at least not participate in what they see as a pointless process. Add in external interference and new methods of mass misinformation, and the victory starts to look at least vaguely coherent with the overall state of affairs.

There's just one problem with this, one that I've been struggling with and concluded that I simply don't get it. How exactly does anyone look at Trump and not conclude within five minutes or less that he's a colossal arsehole ? The idea that ordinary people think a billionaire can represent them more-or-less makes sense, even if it's not exactly sensible, but... a complete and total dick ? Someone who thinks it's okay to denigrate women, minorities, the disabled ? Who is demonstrably less intelligent than auto-predicted text messages ? In short, how is that that they either overlook, excuse, or even actively support the malignant and deficient character of this manifestly villainous cretin ?

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