Personal Responsibility and the 2016 Election

by Neil H. Buchanan

Donald Trump has now made clear that he has no intention of eliminating his conflicts of interest -- saying, in essence, that he is keen to cash in on the "corruption premium."  Meanwhile, the rush by Senate Republicans to confirm Trump's cabinet nominees without adequate vetting continues on its shameless path.

Trump's apologists have come up with an amazing defense of this spectacle, which is that people like Trump and his cabinet of billionaires are too rich to be corrupt.  As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, this argument is completely at odds with the usual conservative line about how rich people think, amounting in fact to a repudiation of the logic of trickle-down economics.

Think back to any argument that you have heard against progressive taxation, whether it be higher taxes on business profits, taxes on large concentrations of wealth (especially the estate tax), or even the notion of having an income tax at all.  The core conservative retort is that we must not "kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

That is, if we reduce the take-home rewards that rich people reap from engaging in their wealth-producing activities, they will supposedly stop producing wealth.  But if rich people apparently still pursue monetary rewards, why would they not pursue such rewards when given enormous political power without any effective ethical limits?

The hypocrisy is rank, and it has me once again thinking about other categories of hypocrisy that flow so readily from the right side of the aisle in American politics.  A few months ago, for example, in "Conservative Word Police," I described conservatives who deride liberals for so-called political correctness yet who are positively obsessed with policing people's word choices.  (Somehow, I failed to mention in that column conservatives' response to "black lives matter" -- "What, you're saying that only black lives matter?!")

Another form of hypocrisy has also recently made its way back into the political conversation.  In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, "Why Rural America Voted for Trump,"a liberal journalist from Iowa argued that rural Americans are mostly conservative Christians and that conservative Christians do not believe in weak-kneed liberal nonsense about root causes and all that.

The op-ed quoted former Republican congressman J.C. Watts, an Oklahoman who is now a born-again Baptist minister, who said in a political speech in Iowa in 2015: "The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good."

As the son of a Presbyterian minister, I did not quite see how these obviously caricatured views of human nature mapped onto political opinions.  In the context from which that quote was taken, Watts seemed to be saying that Democrats are either atheists or not true Christians, while Republicans and Christians are one and the same.

That is obviously wrong along a number of dimensions, but I soon understood the real point when Watts brought it home: "Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us.  If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us."

And there it is, in all its illogical glory, the religious gloss on the personal responsibility meme.  Democrats supposedly get it wrong when they refuse to see that people are to blame for their own problems.  (They are apparently also wrong to think that rich people are corruptible by money.   Even though everyone is fundamentally bad, apparently some people are above reproach -- and not just those who have been born again.)

Helping the poor, according to this view, does not allow them to find their way to a better life.  It merely wastes the money of the good people.  Paul Ryan's embrace of dependency theory thus finds support from something other than Ayn Rand's novels.  Of course, the lack of empirical support for the predictions of dependency theory need not be acknowledged by Republicans like Watts or Ryan, because they simply know what is true.

More importantly for the current political moment, this theory has interesting implications for the claim that the key voters who gave Trump his victory need to be understood rather than criticized.

By now it has become the conventional wisdom among a large group of commentators on both the left and the right that Hillary Clinton's Electoral College loss in 2016 was a result of Democrats' failure to take the concerns of the white working class seriously enough.  This is the whole "identity politics" smear, in which we learn once again that all too many people are willing to say that a concern for civil and economic rights of marginalized people is a mere indulgence that Real Americans will not abide.

The implication of that theory is that liberals need to try to understand why people would vote against their own interests by voting for Trump.  The idea is apparently that good people can make bad decisions, so it is important not to say that these voters are racists (or racist-tolerant) or are in other ways blameworthy for being illogical or uninformed.

This argument came up in a slightly new form earlier this week when conservatives (and some liberals) criticized Meryl Streep's comments at the Golden Globe Awards show.  After pointing out how Trump and many conservatives revile artists, Streep talked about the importance of the arts to society, saying that without them there would be nothing left to entertain us but football and mixed martial arts.

The reactions were predictable and absurd.  I happened to be in an airport during one of CNN's painful panel discussions, so I could not change the channel.  There was a long discussion of a claim by John McCain's daughter (and Fox News contributor) Meghan McCain, who claimed that "[t]his Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won."

Although the younger McCain was rightly mocked for the odd time-traveling aspect of her assertion, let us give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she was calling out Hollywood liberals in general for being too willing to denigrate things that white working-class voters like.  Those voters simply feel disrespected, apparently, and this is meant to justify why they would vote for Trump.

Of course, if that is the point, then Streep's speech is a particularly bad example of the genre.  She was describing how important it is to have a full range of entertainment available, and the people with whom she works are particularly vulnerable to cultural crackdowns by bullies who dislike being confronted with differing views.  She did not say that football and martial arts are bad.  She said that a world where only those two forms of entertainment are available would be a rather empty world.  As a football fan, I agree.

Throughout the post-election discussion about the sensibilities of white working-class voters, I have been more than willing to say that it is important to reach the reachable Trump voters.  This includes respecting the idea that, contra Watts, people are not born good or bad or with certain political views, but rather that people with real economic insecurity can start to act in ways that they would not otherwise act.

That, in fact, is the common thread of all of the emerging proto- (and not so proto-) fascist movements around the world.  Scared people are willing to embrace extreme measures and to elevate extremist leaders who would otherwise find no audience.

What bothers me about that conversation, however, is that it tends to remove all agency -- free will, for lack of a better term -- from these voters' thoughts and actions.  In its extreme form, in fact, this argument brings to mind the complaint from conservatives about how liberals have coddled children into believing that they are all special.  Giving everyone awards for participation, and not keeping score at soccer games so that no one feels like a loser, is supposedly a big liberal plot to make us all weak.

I happen to find that argument unpersuasive (or at least wildly overblown), but there is more than a hint of just that kind of condescension in the post-election attempts to "understand" working-class voters.  Such voters were supposedly feeling disdained by Democrats, so they acted on those feelings by voting for Trump, who promised to throw out immigrants and bring back factory jobs.  Who can blame them for being willing to stick their collective thumbs in the eye of the dreaded establishment?  They were wrong, but at least they tried.

The problem is that it did not require any particular expertise, or even paying especially close attention to the news, to see that Trump is a con man.  He continually denied having said things that he had said.  His record of cheating his own workers and contractors was well known.  He was never going to drain the swamp.  He is a New York City billionaire (maybe) who opportunistically changed his views to win the biggest prize he could find.

As a matter of political strategy, I can see why Democrats do not want to say any of that.  Because I am not a Democratic strategist, however, I will not willfully avoid noticing this rather uncomfortable implication of the effort to exculpate people's bad decisions.

After all, when a working-class white voter decided to vote for Trump, he was not actually being selfish.  I would actually have been ecstatic if those voters had pursued their own self-interest.  But because they did not, they (along with many other people) will soon have lower incomes, worse health care, dirtier air, more extreme weather, a greater likelihood of living (and possibly dying) in a nation at war, and on and on.

And this is all because people like Meryl Streep supposedly have disdain for working people?

The reliance on "feelings" as a defense is certainly popular.  Just this week, Trump's nominee for Attorney General responded to accusations of being a racist by saying that it hurt him deeply to be called such a thing.  It is an awfully convenient distraction, and it works because ultimately Republicans want to have it both ways, attacking Democrats for not being hard enough on people but then wanting sympathy and understanding when it suits them.

To be clear, I continue to be very concerned about the economic stagnation that has made so many people receptive to the demagoguery of bigots.  Even so, there is still a responsibility to respond to personal fears and uncertainty in a productive way.  Saying, "I'm mad, so screw the system!" might feel good in the moment, but it is a profoundly harmful reaction.