So What Can We Do?

There was a favorite example I used in my classroom when we were discussing the challenges posed by living in a country whose citizens increasingly occupy wildly different realities: if I say this particular piece of furniture is a table, and you insist it’s a chair, how do we have a productive exchange about its use?

Americans are continually having that maddening–and worthless– conversation. But it has taken a long time for the people who live in the reality-based community to recognize the basis of the problem.

In the wake of the 2016 election, well-meaning observers grasped for rational, evidence-based reasons to explain votes for a man who exemplified everything those voters claimed to detest. It was economic distress. It was an effort to “blow up” a system that wasn’t working for them. It was an inability to cross party lines.

Some of us suspected what has since become too obvious to ignore: Trump’s racism resonated with Americans whose chosen reality was being threatened by the increasing intrusion of “uppity” women and people of color. In Trump voters’ reality, White Christians enjoyed an obvious entitlement to cultural dominance, and that dominance–the position of “real” Americans– was being eroded.

Most of my friends are liberals (although many of them would have been classified as conservatives before the political spectrum lurched so far to the right that sanity is now a “liberal” marker…), and many of them are simply too nice to believe what the data so clearly confirms: America is split between those who live in a world where people are people, no matter their gender, skin color or religion, and those whose worldview assigns worth solely on the basis of those categories.

The data is unambiguous. Just look at this recent report by Alan Abramowitz from Sabato’s Crystal Ball. The article was about the prospects of Democrats winning back White voters without college degrees, and Abramowitz concluded that appealing to the economic interests of White non-college voters wouldn’t be enough for Democrats to win back their support, because the realignment among those White voters isn’t being driven by economics.

If the increasingly obvious argument is correct– that “economic discontent has little to do with the flight of white working class voters from Democrats”– economic policies aren’t going to prompt their return. As Abramowitz notes, the research strongly suggests that the “main factor behind the shifting party allegiance of these voters is the success of Republican leaders like Donald Trump in appealing to the racial resentments and grievances of non-college white voters.”

In this article, I use evidence from the 2020 American National Election Study to examine the effects of various political attitudes on the candidate preferences of college and non-college white voters in the 2020 presidential election. In line with the arguments of racial resentment theorists, I find that economic insecurity had very little impact on white voter decision-making in 2020. However, I find that the rejection of the Democratic Party by white working class voters goes beyond racial resentment alone. Instead, I find that support for Donald Trump among white working class voters reflected conservative views across a wide range of policy issues including social welfare issues, cultural issues, racial justice issues, gun control, immigration, and climate change. In other words, the rejection of the Democratic Party by white working class voters is fundamentally ideological. This fact makes it very unlikely that Democrats will be able to win back large numbers of white working class voters by appealing to their economic self-interest.

Those “conservative views,” of course, are also driven by racial bias. Sociological research has demonstrated, for example, that negative views on social welfare are connected to the belief that (“lazy”) Black Americans will primarily benefit. In the body of his analysis, Abramowitz notes that non-college whites “leaned to the right in every issue area but especially on social welfare, racial justice, and immigration issues.”

Abramowitz applied a regression analysis to the data, and found that

Racial resentment and party identification are by far the strongest predictors of conservative ideology. Evangelical identification has a significant impact as well, but its effect is not nearly as strong as the effects of racial resentment and party ID. Family income has almost no effect on ideology and economic insecurity has a negative effect.

So–back to that argument over whether the furniture is a table or chair. How do we talk to (never mind debate) people who occupy a wildly different reality–not just the looney-tunes who take horse de-wormers and/or accept QAnon fantasies, but the seemingly normal Americans who harbor stubborn hatreds and resentments untethered to fact or evidence (or for that matter, the Christianity they proclaim)?

I’m stumped.


  1. I don’t know either! That’s why I come here. After reading Heather Cox Richardson’s nightly letter, my hair is on fire! We are going to lose Democracy here which will infect the rest of the world like coronavirus! We have Got To Stop This !

  2. I grew up in Cleveland where ethnic hatred was everywhere and even white people hated other white people. I don’t think we will have much luck overcoming these attitudes. Although given enough time we are all going to become some kind of brown color. I want is to be able to in most cases out vote them which means strengthening voting laws so that a minority of voters do not have the power they do now.
    Another problem is the Republican Party does not have a strong moderate faction anymore so if these people want to turn away from Trump there is no place from them to go since they can’t become Democrats. From then it is either/or.

  3. Movement conservatives used racial resentment to end the popular, with both parties, activist government (1930 ish to 1980 ish) . The movement conservatives “flipped” the parties regarding race, something they still refuse to be honest about ( PagerU has apiece “proving” the flip never occurred, and its maddeningly incomplete & dishonest) . The what do we do about it is the hard part. People aren’t generally willing to admit they are in error. We can point out the movement conservatives are the ones “ruining” the country, that they are doing so with a minority party at that, while trying to install a strongman government, until we are blue in the face but their supporters will deny it. ll we can do is insist our like minded friends and neighbors get out and vote. Yes, the trumpsters will whine about “stolen” elections but they are “stolen” only in the business use sense of the word that a customer was lost to a competitor.

  4. I suspect that there is more than racism at work because it doesn’t explain the growing popularity of conservatism among brown and black people. I see it within my microcosm of Middletown, USA.

    I believe you’ll find the same thing in larger urban settings as well.

    Many of those surveys need to assess the divisions taking place within the people of color because some divisions take place within those climbing up the economic ladder and those who have not.

    We are an oligarchy, as are academic institutions, many of which are propaganda promoters now that they are funded by the private sector. This is one of the reasons the cost of education has grown exponentially versus trillions in student debt financing their effort.

    Our local UniverCity is wholly controlled by Republicans. The Board of Directors is 100% Republican, as are many boards in Indiana because we are controlled by Republicans.

    Also, the local oligarchs still control much of the community through their alliances and philanthropy, leverage their position to control any rising or falling within the class structure. Those blacks and browns who have become aware of this structure are now playing the American game of oligarchy.

    I’ll stop right there to see if anyone has the slightest idea what I am talking about. Again, I am fortunate or unfortunate to be living in Middletown, USA, which is like a petri dish for the USA. I am more progressive than most POC and people classified as gender aware. The professors who are protected by tenure don’t need it because they don’t speak up or lose their position in society.

    We claim to have all these “freedoms,” but society is oligarchic, which means there are rules if you want to participate in the American Dream. Does this make sense?

  5. Has anyone ever noticed that the background on FAUX News is an angry orange? All the better to ramp up the rage of their viewers.

    I spent part of my day, yesterday with some young friends, who are tRumpers. Both are lawyers, so definitely college educated. They don’t think they need the vaccine, even though they have a brand new baby girl, who will be unprotected for a long time. The man of the household told me he had COVID and it was just like having a super-flu. I told him that he was just lucky as I have friends who have died and friends who have gotten long COVID and they wouldn’t have described it like that. I left it at that. Maybe he will begin to think about what I said. Maybe?

  6. To answer your first ?, call the table an occasional table and call it a chair on its days off.

    As for dealing with alternate realty nuts, do a Chuck Norris and tell them when you want their opinion, you’ll give it to them. You can’t deal with people who won’t deal and life is way too short to waste it on them.

  7. As a young psychiatric nurse, I learned very quickly that trying to tell someone their delusion is not based in reality, only makes that person REALLY angry and defensive. Instead, I learned to pay attention to the feelings. So, if an extreme Trumpist, started articulating delusional, false beliefs I would stand there and listen hoping that as I remained calm and attentive, they would deescalate and give me an opening to ask a question. If they don’t deescalate, there is no way I can start a civil conversation. If they do, then I might have an opening to ask a question.

    I.e. I hear your concerns. I’m a retired Rn and I wonder if you have good health insurance. How’s your family? Do you have a good job? What keeps you up at night? I would try to stay away from talking about abortion, gay rights, immigration because those tend to be divisive issues.

    It’s tragic for our country that so many have bought into the Big Lie and delusional conspiracies. Mass insanity. One thing I know for sure that I can do is hold onto the facts and stay away from bizarre conspiracies. The 2nd thing I know I can do is simply use my psych nurse skills on someone who is lost in falsehoods and delusions.

    Time to wash the dishes and practice gratitude. Before enlightenment washing dishes and making my bed, after enlightenment washing dishes and making my bed.

  8. Feeling cranky Sunday…I sense that there is more socio-economic bias about this than the pundits suggest. “The professional class” DEMs can “afford” to say they are not racist because in their worlds – neighborhoods, jobs – the people of color are just like them in education, speech, dress, etc.. And there, they can “safely” show their concern for poor people of color, proudly displaying their BLM signs on their lawns. But, I would suspect they have strong distain for poor all rural whites, assuming them to be uniformly Trumpians.

  9. Todd @ 8:16 am: “Also, the local oligarchs still control much of the community through their alliances and philanthropy, leverage their position to control any rising or falling within the class structure. Those blacks and browns who have become aware of this structure are now playing the American game of oligarchy.”

    Don’t Make No Waves…Don’t Back No Losers
    An Insiders’ Analysis of the Daley Machine
    by Milton L. Rakove, Published: September 1976

    Rakove in his book outlined the searching, selection and vetting process that a political candidate or appointee must undergo. If a POC or a certain ethnic group was needed that person would need to pass the test of obedience to the Oligarchy of wealth and the political oligarchy. Patronage and Crony-Capitalism would be the reward for the successful applicant.

    You did not need to be political or necessarily wealthy as you could be selected to be “A Community Leader” to join the club. Once again obedience was paramount. Don’t Make No Waves. There would be the false front of diversity.

  10. Biden’s attempts at winning back working class white voters was an abject failure. The phenomenon of that group drifting away from Democrats actually predated Trump. Although he tried mightily, Biden was not able to stop or slow down that trend. I agree this group is not voting based on economics like Ds, including Biden, have always assumed.

    But where Biden won the election was regarding a demographic he wasn’t aiming his message at (at least not nearly as much) – college educated white suburban voters. The trend of those voters to abandon the Republican Party and vote Democratic accelerated considerably during the Trump years.

    In 2020, some of those suburbanites just switched for Biden and voted for Republicans down ballot. But the trend line on that demographic switch runs deeper. Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2018, but suburbanites jumped at the chance to reject Trump’s GOP candidates.

    That switch is exemplified by Hamilton County, Indiana. The mayor’s race in the three Hamilton County’s suburban cites most closely tied to Indy – Fishers, Carmel and Westfield – could be very competitive in 2023 if the Ds can find good, mainstream candidates. The baseline GOP numbers in those cities has fallen to about 54%. By the end of the decade, if trends continue, we might see Democratic mayors in all those cities. Hamilton County’s switch from R to D will take a bit longer though as there are still substantial areas of the county which are rural and very Republican. But the urban areas of Hamilton County are going Democratic fast.

  11. It’s complicated, but I still think the majority of the voting public is fairly sane and reasonable. While it may be a small majority (51-60%), I still think they are on the right side of most issues or at least can be reasoned with and educated if done properly. Without trying to scientifically document this, I’m guessing that the cultish, racist, totally unreasonable, ignorant, voters are somewhere around 30%. So that leaves 10-20% that are caught in the middle.

    So to answer your question “What Can We Do?”, I think we need to be careful not to scare or alienate these voters away from making the right decisions. Very little will get done and frankly everything could be lost, if these generally fairly conservative, mostly Republican voters are scared off.

    This seems to be counter to mainstream Democratic political strategy which seems to be hell-bent on insisting that they know what is best; their solutions require radical change; and they must have them immediately. While the programs and solutions are generally in the right direction they often ignore the reigning political reality and level of public education and understanding. Aggressive pursuit of solutions in light of these realities scares voters, can make them angry and can cause them to oppose or vote the other way on issues they might otherwise support.

    The perfect current example is the controversy around hard & soft infrastructure, the filibuster and reconciliation. Democrats’ arrogant attempt to wish away reality & insist on a $3.5T reconciliation package is childish, naive & ignorant. It’s not going to happen because they don’t even have the support of their own Members and much more development and public education is needed.

    It is actually irresponsible to expect the majority of voters to blindly accept a massive expenditure and commitment over a 10-year period that has not even been detailed, debated or publicly explained. Additionally, the public is being asked to accept a multitude of diverse expenditures from child care to climate change and many things in-between. The choice is all or nothing at all. And, if you don’t accept this $3.5T package then you, the voter, don’t get your hard infrastructure package which has been extensively discussed, debated and has bipartisan support of 19 Republicans.

    Democrats are already projected to lose in the 2022 Midterms [] and a win on the bipartisan hard infrastructure bill and voting rights legislation could perhaps save control in the House. If this arrogant attitude toward the $3.5T package continues, and the hard infrastructure is forfeited, a loss in the Midterms will be all but guaranteed. Then, everything including democracy itself will be lost.

    So, “What Can We Do?” We can write off the 30% who don’t know the difference between a chair or a table; but you better start understanding and dealing with the 10-20% who do, and who will make or break democracy itself.

  12. Thanks to Robin for the mindful response. I learned 50 years ago in Life Saving that if someone is flailing so much s/he might drown you- swim back and come up with a good strategy. I’ve long been convinced that saving ourselves is too important to leave to the Professionals or a Savior or even a Gandhi or King. We humans/citizens need to participate and be activists in our own life. But… this “mass insanity “ crowd may actually only be able to follow. Can we come up with a bewitching Personality whose message is love and inclusion instead of hate and exclusion? Oh, wait, wasn’t that Jesus’ job? And, they are ignoring him completely.
    I’m stumped too.

  13. The book Caste by Isabell Wilkerson explains that much of the identity of poor whites involves there not being n***gers. It is the primary thing that makes them feel a sense of worth. So when Obama gets elected to be president, it is a primal and visceral threat to their identity. Blacks can’t, just can’t, be better than them, because then they would be at the very bottom our our society. It sounds as crazy as people dying from covid saying, “I can’t be dying of covid, it’s not real!” Blacks moving up from the bottom cannot, cannot be true. And then comes racist trump, and Obama’s very existence as president has already primed these people for him, because his message is “follow me and we will make things back where they were, we’ll put those uppity blacks back where they belong, and get you back in your proper position over those people.

  14. “Can we come up with a bewitching Personality whose message is love and inclusion instead of hate and exclusion?”

    We tried someone close…Obama. Too bad that Michelle has washed her hands of “country” – hard to blame her. She engendered huge respect – the most respected woman in the US in 2020 and among the most in the word.s

    We live in a time when “bewitching personality” is hard to find except among celebrities: Bill Gates, Elon Musk seem all about themselves/their legacy.

    Punchline: per Gallop’s annual poll – in 2020 the most respected US male was….The Former. Nuff said…

  15. Robin called it properly without any alternatives. For those of us who’ve watched our closest loved ones get destroyed by Alzheimer’s, there is no solution to changing one’s reality. Opinion might be modified. Reality is equivalent to gravity-a given. Professional advice was to either change the subject,IF POSSIBLE, or tacitly agree in some form. The quality of the reality is not germane to the damaged Alzheimer’s brain nor the belief of the under-educated white voter.

  16. Todd E. Smekkens! Well said. What is a solution that could help? Braver Angels and Lincoln Project offer interesting options. How can I reach a white friend who is a college graduate but supports trump!

  17. As a Christian (hopefully one of the sane ones) my belief is that it is a matter of the ‘heart’. And that is only something that an infusion of God’s love can change. Yes, we need a massive revival in America (and the world) if we are to survive socially, even over the next decade. Will God intervene. I honestly don’t know. Sometimes God gives us what we ask for.

  18. Win elections, strategically and tactically. In the short term the scaredy-whites are lost, too dumb to help and getting dumber. Then, over time, education, education, education — not training masquerading as education, but liberal arts for everyone. Reason over superstition is the only long term answer. Or democracy is dead.

  19. Out of 305 people I talked with, sixteen knew who represented them in the Indiana Senate and
    Indiana House of Representatives. The teaching of civics should be mandatory in our schools.

  20. We must contend with the fact that since 2001 scores of millions of U.S. citizens have had their sense of security and self rocked to the point that they fear the loss of both. That’s an entire generation of time for those counting.

    Because of this at the top of their agenda is the reclamation of those feelings of correctness of self and security based on the idea of superiority because they’re “the best” and have “the best” of everything. Here in 2021 they’re faced with the hardline evidence that not only can they not reclaim that place of comfort, but they were mistaken all along about it.

    If there’s anything to explain their seemingly loss of logic, compassion and civility towards handling anything that requires putting the lives or well being of others before their own, it’s in the mission quest of their subconscious selves to reclaim what was never truly theirs in the first place. In many ways they’re as ghosts seeking the bodies they thought they once had.

    This is a challenge that affects us all regardless if we see ourselves among that society or not. It’s toxicity is hazardous to all who come in contact with it.

    When we look at the problem from the standpoint of an oligarchy ruled nation it’s easier to see the effects of the caste system working in this matter. We can be sure of racism, but we too often overlook that it’s basically a weapon wielded by those manipulating the caste system – the skeleton of our nation’s struggle with class warfare and racism.

    These people are struggling with a sense of identity. They have no inner desire to identify with anything left of their perspective, but the writing on the wall is clear. They’re wrong and they’ve always been wrong. What we’re seeing is a psychological rebuking of this truth. It’s doubtful that within the lifetime of anyone commenting here that they’ll find a comforting identity. Not much we can do for them. If they choose to hide their eyes, so be it.

    So we are tasked with keeping the greater society safe from the sabotage of those on the far right. They’re very attracted to the idea of authoritarian government that puts them at the front of the line – even as it rapes them. I believe we must focus on protecting democracy in the short term so that as a democratic society we can work to resolve these issues. As it stands democracy is in deep trouble.

  21. I wish I had easy answers — or sure answers — sadly, I don’t.

    I do have a few suggestions.
    Yes, calmly winning people over, winning their hearts, is the best way, but I don’t see it happening.

    Maybe it is the alternative theological background, but you can’t know someone’s heart; you can know their actions. Actions matter (some psychological theories posit that changing actions changes minds and hearts – the premise of Civil Rights legislation)

    A couple of “don’t”s
    Don’t be try to be so “understanding”, that we accept any behavior.
    Don’t be mealy-mouthed – Joe Wilson can yell “you lie” at Obama when he didn’t like what Obama was saying, but somehow we can’t get ourselves to call liars “liars”
    Don’t say “good people on both sides”, or the equivalent, “Both the extreme left and the extreme right” – sorry – the violent left is a thing of the past – this is a problem on one side only – oh, and sorry, Lester, don’t assume that because they hate me that I must hate them. I don’t look down on farmers, or rural folk — and I am an unrepentant, over-educated liberal, with a high paying job who has spent his life in either biomedical research or IT. As a true liberal, I believe in the worth and dignity of each individual – even Trumpers, Racists, and Antisemites (although I might avoid contact with the worst of them).

    Leading me to the one positive thing we should try to do (putting the Genie back into the bottle is hard, but not impossible). For a while, overt Racism and Antisemitism were considered wrong. The ideas never went away. They are very old, but the behavior brought condemnation. Trump turned dog-whistle politics into active support of expressing Racism, actually of acting on any bigoted impulse. We have to be clear in condemning the the actions. People can keep their bigotry (we can’t control that and I don’t like the idea of “thought crime”), but their actions should bring loud, swift, and unrelenting condemnation.

    Maybe after that, we can see if we can give all people enough of a sense of self-worth that their fears will subside enough to win their hearts.

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