My phone alerted me to today’s AHCA garbage while I was listening to one of my favorite Sappy von Feelingston podcasts, Strangers. Intrepid podcaster and Danish immigrant Lea Thau has launched an intellectual suicide mission: to interview, up close with the dandruff and drool, Trump voters. The series attempts to bridge the emotional and moral partisan divide by putting Lea–a Scandinavian/Angeleno liberal–into these Voldetrump homes. Thau is trying to heal us. To understand what the cluck happened to our country. And, a tinch, to assuage some understandable but frustrating guilt about her insular, coastal, creative class liberalism.
Two broad problems with Thau’s project:
- She presumes that partisanship is based solely on tribalism. I know the research about this: that we feel first and attach logic after to justify our feelings. That we respond more strongly to emotional claims to identity than to facts and reason. That we are primates who must protect our herds. That if we can just get to know each other we can overcome our tendencies to create an Us that excludes Them. But:
- She fails to include race in the conversation. So when Alicia goes on and on and on and on about personal responsibility and the moral and economic (mostly moral) value of hard work and the fucking laziness of people on social services, Thau fails to school her on the effects of generational poverty, white supremacy, structural racism, trauma, and all the other drivers of inequality that I know she knows and was maybe too overwhelmed by SO MANY FEELINGS to remember.
Analytical error 2 is a product of analytical error 1. When white people forget about race, they can persist in a psychological narrative of political difference. They can pretend that if we just eat a meal together, chat about our kids, that we can end white supremacy and the accomanying anti-LGBTQ hate, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-woman policies that are sure to devastate our most vulnerable communities once they’re implemented.
So when Lea “concedes” that liberals are passionate about their identity as liberals, supposedly because liberalism replaces religion for the secular left, she fails to note that conservatives are perhaps more tribal because their conservatism is often tied to their racial/religious identities.
When Alicia describes how her state wages provide a take-home pay comparable to her factory worker client’s, because the state pulls out a glorious pension, Thau fails to point that Alicia’s pension is in fact the driver of the wealth gap and the cause of her client being on social services. The lack of accrued and inherited assets is a key reason that people stay in generational poverty, and a key reason structural racism keeps black people, especially, stuck in economic precarity.
When Thau compares the Trumpocalypse to someone stomping on a cross, she makes politics about her own feelings instead of about the destruction of our planet and the welfare of our people and institutions.
When Alicia compares the hatred she experiences from liberals to the hatred people of color, immigrants, women, Jews, and LGBTQ people feel when they try to be humans in public, Thau fails to adequately point out Alicia’s category error. Thau’s anger at Trump voters like Alicia is not about her identity as a liberal. It’s about her knowledge and experience of political systems. She is angry that we voted for austerity policies that have failed in Europe and that will ruin people’s lives here. If she’s locked into an identity model of politics, she cannot appropriately name and defend her anger. Instead, she apologizes for it.
Alicia says out loud that she’s OK with college being expensive and OK with her daughter working 2 jobs to support her “choice” of a university degree over a cheaper vocational one, because less educated people will [vote Republican] make political discourse more diverse. And because she’s locked into an identity model of partisanship, Thau fails to point out that keeping people of color, woman and LGBTQ people sick, in jail, and poorly educated is exactly the way to preserve GOP power. People who know facts and understand history and politics and culture and remember that the Civil War was about slavery and that LGBTQ people are human beings and that abortion doesn’t cause cancer and knowledge has value may also realize that all the greying white dudes kegging it on the White House lawn to celebrate making domestic violence survivors choose between buying health insurance and reporting the crimes against them are actually bad for us. Very very very bad for us.
I may be a tad harsh on Thau, who performed admirably in a situation that I have done my best to avoid. Thau remained true to her political commitments in a stressful situation. She was both confrontational and respectful–a balance I would love to master. She could not challenge every single claim while also trying to bridge the partisan gap and accept with grace Alicia’s generosity. I sympathize with Thau’s dilemmas and look forward to the ways her series will evolve.
But this episode demonstrates the hazards of viewing politics as a matter of identity rather than as a method of understanding the world.