Monday, September 26, 2016

The “Deplorables”, Election Polls, and Spirituality: Or, Why The Authoritarian Personality Still Matters

William E. Connolly  Author, Facing The Planetary: Entangled Humanism and The Politics of Swarming (forthcoming, Duke) 

Yes, Hillary Clinton made a campaign mistake when she called half the people who support Trump “deplorables”. The charge was too generalized, and it did not take into account the sometimes trying circumstances from which the harsh orientations of a minority of white people against Gays, African Americans, Muslims, and others have been forged. It wrote off a large, dispersed constituency rather than seeking ways to inspire it differently, or even to divert some of its members in other directions. It even excited previously submerged tremors of sympathy in a few quarters for the very constituencies she identified. That is not to say, though, that Clinton failed to speak to an important phenomenon. She was onto something that must be engaged differently. One problem is that too many hesitate to engage it deeply, in part because of the very land mines that make this territory treacherous.  
Think for a moment about election polls. They are problematic in several ways, some of which are acknowledged by pollsters. Yes, pollsters have a hard time defining and finding a representative sample in a changing populace. Yes, there is the difficulty of weighting the poll results so as to represent those who are most apt to vote, trying to weight those differentials through variables of age, gender, class (or education as the pollster’s proxy), and racial identification. Yes, there is the problem of the difference between land phones and cell phones. And on and on, in a now familiar litany.  
 But the pollsters tend to minimize one crucial factor and to downplay another closely connected to it. They minimize the role that a new and untimely event may play in shifting the orientations of this or that constituency. Police violence, urban unrest, a terrorist attack, a shocking development in the Mideast wars, a new expose of Clinton or Trump—any of these could tap into latent anxieties and tip things. And, connected to that, pollsters do not try to assess the role that the spirituality of different participants plays in their readiness to vote, the choices they make, and the resonance machines they are predisposed to join. They try to measure "trust" in the candidates but that is not enough. Some constituencies, for instance, could distrust Clinton because she does not support the deepest prejudices they espouse. Trust is not a good proxy.  
 The role of spirituality in politics, then, is the insight Clinton almost expressed in a garbled way. Indeed, it is both difficult to express and essential to do so if polling is to become less crude than it now is. More than that, it is important to explore to improve our understanding of the current situation and to improve the capacity of the Left to participate in electoral campaigns.  
  By spirituality, I do not mean simply the specific religious or nonreligious beliefs an individual or constituency professes. That is pertinent, too. I mean, as a first shot, the extent to which the orientations of people are infused with positive attachments to the larger planet we inhabit and toward a set of minorities pressing to have a larger say in this world. Presumptive receptivity to others. Some spiritualities--perhaps in some cases because of neglect and suffering their adherents have experienced and in others because a previous sense of Great Entitlement has now been challenged—are filled with existential resentment against the most fundamental features of the human condition, as they understand that condition. A section of the white working class feels not only that its economic situation should be improved--it should. They also feel that their self worth is demeaned unless a host of minorities are shuffled into demeaning positions and kept below them economically. Many in the financial and donor classes express similar sentiments, though for different reasons. In their case it is often because they have cultivated a stringent sense of special entitlement and now find people challenging it. So you find a spiritual affinity across classes sustained by different grievances.  Similar spiritual dispositions also find selective expressions in other social locations. Where you stand on the slogan “political correctness” may provide a crude proxy of sorts for this dimension today.  
 Others, some of whom have also suffered significantly, are filled with a sense of presumptive receptivity toward others undergirded by the sense that their positive attachment to this planet provides them with energy to struggle valiantly against the differential effects of the Anthropocene on different regions and constituencies. Armed, too, with a sense of presumptive receptivity and generosity toward those in different subject positions that encourages them to stand against aggressive nationalism, income inequality and white triumphalism.  
 Some people may use the words ethos or sensibility to describe what I am characterizing as a spirituality. Those words work okay, but I now prefer "spirituality" because it points to actual and potential linkages between supporters of this or that religioius creed and those with affinities of disposition who do not profess a monotheistic creed. Pope Francis and Bruno Latour manifest affinities of spirituality across creedal differences. The Left needs to better negotiate affinities of spirituality across creeds to construct a viable movement. The Right already does so at several interlocked levels of activation, from local school boards to court campaigns, from TV news programs to extremist blogs, from corporate donors to neighborhood campaigns, from defenses of neoliberal ideology to church confessions of an evangelical right aligned with it. 
 There is much more to be said about the spiritual dimension and its essential role in political understanding and campaigns. But the initial point is that any poll that does not venture into this treacherous territory is suspect, even if it is treacherous territory to explore. Think of how late polls in the UK anticipated a tight victory to stay in the EU, while in fact Brexit won handily. Think about how, often enough, an African American candidate in a southern state enters election day with a definite lead in the polls, only to lose by a significant margin. The election season we face in the United States today is one in which the spiritual element of politics cuts into class, age, education, gender and creedal dimensions, making each of them insufficient to the phenomenon being studied and informing campaigns. A portion of the electorate tempted to vote for Trump is unlikely to report this to the pollsters, in part because they are rather ashamed to do so and in part because they are still struggling with contending aspects of their own spirituality. Events could help to tip things one way or the other in the latter cases 
  After the advent of Fascism in Europe critical theorists who had suffered immensely through the holocaust and war sought to articulate the components of a fascist personality. They also tried to figure out how differences in such tendencies are not entirely reducible to the usual categories of class, race, creed, etc. They even came to conclude that some people who stood with the Left on specific aims expressed tendencies that could readily carry them to the authoritarian Right. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), writing about personality types in the United States, constructed the “Fascist Scale" to offer a reading of types most susceptible to a fascist movement. Theodore Adorno--the most subtle of the authors--distinguished between personality types who displayed conventional prejudice, those who manifested traits of the authoritarian personality, and those who manifested those of a manipulative personality. The second type sought out minorities to demean; they were drawn to envy; and they sought to obey the third type. The manipulative types were ruthless, impulsive and narcissistic in ways that remind one of Donald Trump today. The authoritarian types were susceptible to Big Lies-- even if they did not always believe them--because the lies gave them pegs upon which to hang their deepest hostilities and identity demands. Three loosely intercoded spiritualities, with the first potentially open to change, the second less apt to be, and the third both ruthless and capable of attracting followers from the first and second during periods of tumult.  
 The authors did not examine how under situations of duress the three types could be mobilized into a resonance machine that cuts across religious creeds, classes and genders, even while being more concentrated in some than others. Today, we need to explore how right wing TV shows, extremist blogs, distressing events, and Big Lie campaigns can work together to forge an intense political constituency out of such types, even as it taps the anxieties and uncertainties of a larger faction of the populace.  

 That early study was roundly criticized by the empiricists of the day. One could see why, in a sense. But the critics then failed to build the question of existential spirituality into their own polls and political studies in reflective ways. To do so would have necessitated combining polls with depth interviews. Moreover, the whole project would run the risk of being subject to charges of bias.   

 The point, though, is that not to fold the spiritual dimension into polls and political understandings is to infuse an even bigger bias into polling and political understanding. It is also to run a big risk of downplaying a crucial ingredient during the current period of tumult. For today a variety of embedded cultural assumptions about the future of America now face severe body blows from the intensity of racial animus among a section of whites, urban police violence, the rapidity of climate change, growing economic inequality in income and security, resentments against newly legitimized minorities, and anger in several world regions about the adverse effects of America upon them. These realities inflame the spiritual dimension of politics. Spirituality is a real, dangerous force in American politics today. It is also a potential source of positive power.   
 You cannot start, then, by placing all the "deplorables" in one basket. (Note how even the authors of The Authoritarian Personality thought of three different types who contrasted with the democratic personality, and how they began to study the life experiences that fostered each). You cannot get very far, either, by ignoring how contending spiritualities are not entirely reducible to religious, class, race, and gender identifications, though they are certainly connected to them. You must come to terms with how those with affinities of spirituality can become organized into constituencies with considerable political punch. And if you seek to oppose and resist the ugliest elements in politics today it is also important to foster a counter resonance machine that augments and inflates a set of positive spiritualities already extant in cultural life.   
 Trump is well attuned to the most militant elements of his assemblage. His rhetorical style is effective at inflaming them, even if it also turns off others. Hillary Clinton speaks to policies that address some important issues. But she does not really amplify the positive energies needed. That is a major reason she has not been able to attract enthusiasm from younger citizens who flocked to Bernie Sanders, who are inspired by Cornel West, and who listen closely to Elizabeth Warren. Today others must fill in for Clinton if we are to avoid the worst.



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