Each serves their own political goals
One of our most deeply ingrained ideas is that we belong to an “in” group, and that others belong to an “out” group. The idea comes from social identity theory, and it has been very influential in evolutionary psychology.
It makes sense. Consider our ancestors far in the past. To them, being able to make a snap judgment as to whether someone running toward them was a friend or a foe was a matter of life or death. Choose incorrectly and a member of a competing group will kill you.
As a result, the propensity to make snap judgments as to whether others are like us or different from us is hard-wired into us. We use shortcuts, called “cognitive biases,” to decide whether others are friend or foe. Examples of such shortcuts include determinations as to whether the other person looks like us, acts like us, or sounds like us.
Recent research showed that we are different from our closest primate relatives chimpanzees in that we are less likely to kill our own. The fact that we essentially have each other’s back in our group is part of what has made our species so successful.
Overcoming this disposition for categorizing ourselves and others has been one of the great challenges of civilization. Consider religion, the oldest of which only date back about 3500 years or so. All of them share a common mandate: that we treat others as we would want to be treated. There is good reason that directive is often referred to as the golden rule. It urges us to break down the walls our evolutionary needs have built up between us.
Although it seems to us that religion has been around for a long time, or even that the United States has a long history, 200 years or 3500 years or even 100,000 years are just a drop in the evolutionary bucket. The earliest of our recognizably human ancestors emerged about five million years ago, so civilization and religion are working to overcome a lot of evolution.
So when we try to convince people that others who have different colored skin or speak differently or behave differently are actually people just like us, we have our work cut out for us.
Fear and insecurity are some of our strongest emotions. When we feel them, we retreat into the deepest, darkest recesses of our mind. The thin veil of civilization gives way to our animal instincts, like our propensity for in-group/out-group categorization.
Logically, you might be able to say to yourself that immigration is a strength of the American economy, or that Islam is a peaceful religion. But when we are driven by fear and insecurity, we are quick to abandon those ideas, as we saw in the wake of 9–11.
This background helps explain one of the greatest conundrums that puzzle political activists: why do the working poor so often vote against their own economic interest? The policies that Trump advocates such as cuts to healthcare, tax cuts for the wealthy, and cuts to Medicare and Social Security are devastating to these folks. But yet Trump’s most loyal supporters remain less educated white men. It seemingly makes no sense.
But when one considers that these people feel like their lives are completely out of control, that they are boats bobbing on a violent ocean of globalization, automation, and economic insecurity, you can see where they live lives characterized by fear and insecurity. These are just the emotions that drive people into their deepest animal instincts.
And it’s not just economic insecurity that drives them. They look back on a past when the world made sense. When women were expected to take care of the home, men would bring home the bacon, and LGBTQ people and people of color were invisible. All that is changing, and fast.
Consider marriage equality. If you had told me that gay marriage would be the law of the land just a few years ago, I would have called you crazy. But yet, here we are.
You need not go back very far to see how different our country has become socially and economically in just the past few decades. I was alive when segregation was still the law of much of the land. People just a little older than I am expected to leave high school and get a good job at the Ford factory and retire from there. GM used to be referred to as “Generous Motors.” No longer. All that has changed and been replaced with insecurity.
The strongest weapon we have against fear and insecurity is education. It need not specifically be diversity education either. Simply being educated means you have more options available to you when your job changes. Being educated means you have been exposed to people who are different from you.
It is not by accident then that we see the strongest predictor for people’s support of Donald Trump and the Republicans is their level of education. Since education is also closely related to income in our economy, Democratic districts tend to be both more highly educated and more economically vital. Most of the poorest, least educated states in the country are Republican — Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky.
So when the Republicans fight to increase income inequality and decrease support for education, they are actually helping themselves politically. Given the nature of their plutocratic ideology, those at the very top will appreciate the advocacy of the Republicans. Keeping everyone else poor, insecure and uneducated will help those at the top keep control.
On the other hand, the more everyone has a certain level of economic security and a certain level of education, the more likely we are to be open to people who are different from us. Appeals to racism, sexism, homophobia or other out-group prejudices will have less power over us. Thus the Democrats’ advocacy of education and greater economic equality plays to their political strength as well.
Much has been made about the Republicans’ efforts to rig the system through gerrymandering, voter suppression and other anti-democratic endeavors. But in fact their approach to starving education for funding has been an unappreciated policy aimed at keeping them in power. If we are to truly commit ourselves to small d democracy, part of our agenda must include a re-commitment to education. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it helps undermine the ignorance that is central to the Republicans’ current appeal.
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