American impasse and the limits of tribal empathy

So why in America can’t we progress? Because there are about ten to fifteen percent of the country that sees no point to the American experiment if it doesn’t guarantee White superiority.

The good news, I suppose, is that it’s only ten to fifteen percent. But that is not evenly distributed. They are almost all Republicans, so that means 20 to 30 percent of the GOP. That’s too many to ignore, and no Republican presidential candidate has won by ignoring or defying them. Not only that, one Republican candidate has won (barely) by playing to them almost exclusively. Look at McCain: he lost to Obama the moment he said to that person at a town hall, No, you’re wrong, Obama is a good Christian man. That defiance was the end. Romney did not play to that slice of the base, though I donˋt think he opposed them. Bush and Reagan played to them more or less subtly, and catered to them more or less during their terms.

Because of Trump’s victory, however on the margin, the GOP has a new playbook and everyone thinks this is how to win. You play to that tranche, and you win them solidly, and you can win others who do not believe what they believe but feel defensive of them. Then you may also win others who like to see a unified team. You will lose a tranche who opposes these beliefs, but I speculate those are the other end of the bell curve, about ten to fifteen percent of the party. Those are Republicans who are ideologically committed to equality and fairness. They are ideologically very similar to some Democrats, but for tribal and cultural reasons will not flip.

It’s a good question to ask what is going on with this group. What is in their mind that makes them so devoted to this idea that seems to toxic to others. I think it is probably not, for most of them, hate. I think people are driven by positive motivations. When blatant White supremacists say they are driven by love for White people (however defined, and however that definition has changed over the decades), I think we can take them at their word. They want the people they love to do better than others. Nobody really, in their heart of hearts, wants a fair shake for their kids, they want their kids to have unfair advantages. Your kid misbehaves in class? It’s a rare parent who doesn’t want endless second chances for their kid. Of course, that word “second” is funny when it really means nth. Your kid doesn’t work hard or just isn’t that clever? You still want them to do well… of course you do! You love them!

We don’t want the ones we love to get what they deserve, we want them to get more than they deserve. If we consider ourselves fair-minded (and who doesn’t) we want others to get what they deserve, and no less than that. But fairness does not, I don’t think, extend to the ones we love. We love them no matter what. We make excuses — he’s a fine young man, he’s good at heart, she didn’t mean it, she was kidding.

So if your tribal feelings extend only to those who are very, very similar to you, and no further, you can easily, in a very human way, be a supremacist. I speculate (wildly) that only for about ten to fifteen percent of the population, they are unable to empathize with anyone who does not resemble them closely. I’m no neuroscientist, but my mental picture is there is a dial in the brain that allows tribal feelings to extend to those who are more or less similar. For a very few people, it extends to all humanity if not all sentient beings. There may even be difficult religious practices designed to extend and foster that ability. On the other end, there are a few people who can not feel empathy for anyone but themselves; sociopaths or psychopaths (I’ve never been clear on the difference). Those are the ends of the curve. Climb up the wings of the bell curve, and you get a larger group who can empathize with not just themselves, but only people very similar to themselves, at one end, and not all sentient beings but wide swaths of humanity, at the other end.

Note, above, there can be supremacists in every group; humans are human, and if there is a dial in the brain that establishes the boundaries of empathy, that exists for all people, and with a similar range of options. It is only because of the particular makeup of the American population and history and government and structure that White supremacists have the power to threaten and dominate that they have. I suppose that any authoritarian government depends on a supremacist movement — people are clearly willing to surrender personal freedom if they can dominate others, and establish a system in which that dominance is passed on to their offspring.

[there’s more to come, but I can’t do that right now…]