Groupthink in the Divided States of America

I remember, on Election Night 2008, when the result was declared, a middle-aged black woman in Chicago jumping up and down crying, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Though I didn’t vote for Obama, I was deeply moved by her. Just seeing black Americans then made me empathize with how it must feel – after centuries of abuse, now one of theirs was president.

But the coin had another side, which only gradually grew visible. While blacks could now feel more at home in America, some whites felt less so. While blacks saw the president as kindred, some whites saw him as wholly alien. This metastasized into the “Birther” and Obama-as-Muslim nonsense, embraced by surprisingly large numbers, really as badges of their active dissociation from what Obama represented. J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy depicts how large this cultural factor loomed among the working class whites he wrote about.

Now the worm has turned. The alien black president has been replaced by one those same whites see as theirs. Never mind that he’s a New York billionaire. After their eight-year Obama-trauma, they’ve latched onto Trump as their guy, seeing him as speaking for them, and they ain’t gonna let go of that. Even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue.

A recent “special report” in The Economist, “The Power of Groupthink,” analyzes the phenomenon. Trump’s first months in office have been such a travesty that many are puzzled why his support has not eroded all that much. It’s partly down to what I’ve written already. His supporters’ emotive commitment lets Trump get away with a lot, to change his mind, lie outrageously, behave boorishly, and even to promote policies that actually harm them.

As The Economist elucidates, their stance is not tied to specific policies, nor even realities. Again, it’s mainly cultural, the sense that they, through him, are back on top, or at least no longer being thrown under the bus (even if they are). It’s the old line: “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

And it’s important to understand that facts are not much in the picture. The Economist estimates that only about a fifth of Americans are politically engaged and paying close attention; about equally split between pro-Democrat and pro-Republican partisan zealots. “For the rest, political issues are little more than ‘a sideshow in the great circus of life,’” says The Economist, quoting Robert Dahl in 1961.

It’s still true. Most people see political issues “through a glass darkly.” Of course they often have bedrock viewpoints on issues like abortion, guns, gays, and God. But the day-to-day chatter of news reports is just a blurry background buzz.

That applies to the Russia stuff. Most voters just don’t seem to care, failing to understand the powerful reasons why they should. And if Trump says it’s fake news, many accept that, taking his word over that of the news media. Not because he’s actually more credible; they just choose to.

It’s very different now than in the past when so many Americans sat down en masse to watch the evening news. When LBJ lost Walter Cronkhite on Vietnam, he lost America. And I remember seeing John Chancellor open with, “President Nixon stunned the nation today . . . .” Within weeks, Nixon was gone. Now those days are gone.

No such voices of authority today can nail Trump on his lies and make it stick.* And Chancellor’s assumption of “the nation” reacting collectively, as one, also has become quaint. Now everyone can choose their own truth. And as for what I called bedrock views, voters don’t act like calculating machines. Most, The Economist says, have only hazy ideas of what candidates and even parties really stand for. Rather than picking those “that best fit their own political views, they are deciding on some other criteria.” Some actually first pick the candidate they feel most comfortable with, and then associate that candidate (often incorrectly) with policies they notionally favor. And even bedrock can shift. The Economist notes that in 2011, white evangelicals were the most likely group to say personal morality is important in a president. Along comes Trump, and they’re the least likely to say that now. Similar political expedience has reversed past Republican antipathy toward Russia.

The Economist used the word “groupthink” and this too is a key factor. Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort, showed how America is becoming increasingly segregated politically, with people clustering in like-minded communities. Of course, political dividing lines are to a considerable extent socio-economic (and thusly geographic), with upscale urban professionals seeing things very differently from Vance’s rural working class. And there is some tendency, at least among those who take their politics seriously, to gravitate to locales where they feel at home. But for the less engaged majority, The Economist sees a different factor operating: “Most voters make political choices based largely on what people like them are doing.” If most guys in your local bar are talking Trump, you ain’t gonna be for Hillary. Many voters are political Zeligs who, chameleonlike, take on the prevailing political colors of their surrounding communities, fitting in with their peers.

The human tendency to fall in line with what others around you say is well documented. In experiments (e.g., featuring a “which line is longer?” question), people will even give what they know is a wrong answer if surrounded by others giving that answer.

Remember the “culture wars?” They never ended; indeed intensified. Today’s bitter divisions are as much cultural as political, between two worlds that see each other in apocalyptic terms and don’t even agree on what reality is. One can even imagine the country splitting up. Yet, once more, only about a fifth of Americans take things so seriously, and the rest go about their lives as normal human beings. That would be reassuring, except for this: it’s because America is the kind of country it is that most people can live their lives as normal humans without having to concern themselves greatly about politics. Yet that very character of America is itself a product of our political ethos (somewhat unique in global history), and it’s actually endangered. Maybe we can no longer indulge in the luxury of political disengagement.

*Perhaps they’ve given up. Last night discussants on “Washington Week” mentioned Trump’s claim to have refurbished the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and its being untrue, but without further comment. Previously such a presidential whopper would have been a Big Deal. Now it’s the New Normal.

 

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One Response to “Groupthink in the Divided States of America”

  1. Chips Says:

    What struck me in your piece is the reference to “normal human beings” as being largely politically unaware and, yet, still somehow normal. This is not normal. I can recall being taught history and civics in my public elementary and high schools, and having those lessons augmented in private religious training and by social organizations like the Boy Scouts. It all fit together seamlessly into a context of ethical behavior leavened with practical examples of how our democracy works. While it is pleasant to wish for more political awareness and discourse, it likely will not happen until we commit to instructing our children to be fluent in the workings and roots of our fragile democracy just as well as we expect immigrants who wish to become citizens to become.

    https://my.uscis.gov/en/prep/test/civics/view

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