Several pundits are complaining that Democrats didn’t reach out enough to white working class voters. The rebuttal leads one quickly to discussions of post-truth since, as Gin and Tacos expains, the Democratic platform is aimed at enacting policies that should lead white working class voters to favor them out of their own sense of enlightened self-interest. Yet, these voters overwhelmingly voted for Trump and are only now realizing it may cut their health insurance right out from under them. So, what gives?
I think one thing that gives is the very notion of Enlightened self-interest. It has certainly been under question for my entire life, but only now are we really seeing real, mass evidence for it. Even under the spell of Reagan, there were rationally dominated news outlets checking facts and behaviors, and an older generation whose worldview was firmly and existentially entrenched in the Enlightenment model. Cut to 2016 and media is no longer in the hands of a few professionals, but in the hands of a few entrepeneurs and their ability to get news consumers to repeat and virally spread ideas they find favorable at shaping worldviews/ workdviews. At the same time, those who are 70 or younger are — I would assert — if not enthusiastic about it, at least familiar with notions that truth is rather fungible and that in a pluralistic society, one’s truth may not fit all the facts.
So, we have reached a tipping point by electing The Donald. That tipping point entails a radical questioning of Enlightened self-interest (ESI). If we are all biased, then what good is it? There are a few responses to this, all of which deny some or all of the basic premises of ESI:
1) The American democracy allows for this in an ingenious way: representation. While individuals are biased and ill-informed on larger views, the genius of the founding fathers was to create a system whereby the ill-informed at least can have representation and in an algorithmic sort of way, the issues get sorted out. This is much like the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s marketplace. My biases may cancel yours out and vice versa, but at least we all put part biases together and out of that we get a sense of where to go, what direction to move in, and policy is shaped around that. I think this is by far the dominant political philosophy at the moment and it allows for folks to shrug and say “well, I guess that’s just the way it is,” thus ceding political power in the moment.
2) It is no good. We need a strong man because only a strong man can override the multitude of biases that have kept our country in gridlock for so many years. Here we have free people effectively desiring their own repression. It is the anti-liberty version of hippiedom. Let one’s inner fascism all hang out.
3) Nihilism. Some might argue that this is really a version of #2, but I don’t think so. Whatever you say about fascist dictators, or even just strong heads of state, at least they believe in the fundamental good of the state. A truly nihilist view would “burn the whole thing down.” For them, the state itself is actually the evil. There is no hope in collective determination of the future or in figuring out how to balance viewpoints in a pluralistic society. Nihilists support the strong man only because they believe in pragmatic power, not in any real consideration of its uses. It’s all very self-centered and looking out for one’s own. It remains to be seen where the “alt-right” is on this and how far folks like Brannon will tread down this path.
4) Revisionism. In this response, the problem lies in the past, mostly the post-Civil War abolition of slavery or some other excuse to apologize for racism and sexism like the New Deal policies. By revising history, we can essentially cast the last 70 years or so in light of “and look where theat has gotten us.” So, the problem really lies in acknowledging the rights of others and working for equality. Here we might also see anti-NAFTA and TPP arguments alongside the rise of the two-income family” critiques of neoliberalism, though these might appear elsewhere too. But the main point to these responses is that our country has been on the downward spiral for some time and Trump’s core messge, “Make American Great Again,” is to be taken literally by undoing the policies that have led us to today. Like #3, this is really self-centered or at least in-group centered in terms of ESI. I can hear echoes of my middle school teacher in Florida (a woman) who argued that blacks had it good under slavery and that women getting out into the workforce really wasn’t a good thing (except for teachers, of course, because that was “womanly”).
I am sure there are other kinds of responses, but these are the ones I can see. In all of them, the notion of ESI really comes under question as liberally defined. And I don’t see enough questioning about the progressive assumptions of ESI as an animating theory for progressive policies. In short, what would a progressive messaging look like if it didn’t rely on voters acting for their own interests? Because that is what the Republicans are doing and have been doing in places like Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa.