I want to talk about some broad generalizations here.
Disclaimer: This post will look at things in simplistic terms. Real life is far more complicated.
I was once in a college classroom talking to a fellow student also named Daniel. Despite our common name, we were almost nothing alike physically. Daniel was big and strong; I was small and skinny. Somehow, we got on the subject of what we would do if we were cave men being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. (It was boring before that class, okay?) Our answers reflected our physical attributes: Daniel knew he couldn’t run away from it, so he said he’d stay and fight—finding a rock or a branch to use as a club. I, on the other hand, would do my best to run away, and failing that, I’d find a tree to climb and then throw things at the beast until it went away or until a search party from the village came looking for me. I knew that I would have no chance facing it head-on.
In reality, we would probably both be prehistoric cat food:
But that’s not the point. The point is that our physical differences determined our thought processes. The big, strong guy relied stayed and fought head-on, relying on his strength. The small, skinny guy ran and hid and threw things—relying on speed and wit.
Now, big Daniel is not a stupid guy. We were both taking the same college class, and if I recall correctly, we both did well in it. But we did solve problems in different ways. I bet you the prehistoric guy who invented the spear was a lot like Daniel. But I also bet that the guy who invented archery was more like me. The two weapons play to the strengths of the different physicalities—spears solve things by strength more than wit.
Today, I’d like to discuss how the mindset of solving problems by brute strength could inform one’s political views. To start, let’s go an elementary school playground and look at the stereotypical way these two groups sort themselves out: into bullies and victims.
Now, not every kid endowed with physical strength becomes a bully. But I’ve yet to meet a male bully who wasn’t. (Female bullying is a different subject that I’m setting aside for this post.) If you’re a boy who’s stronger than all the other kids, it’s pretty easy to get what you want, be it extra lunch money, the first place in line, or perverse pleasure in someone else’s suffering—you just hit the other kid until you get it.
For the victims, on the other hand, the way to get what you want depends entirely on dealing with authority figures: the teachers. Most often, this entails playing by the rules to earn the teachers’ good graces, and then asking for help. This includes involving the teachers whenever the rules are broken—such as by a bully hitting you.
Bullies can take what they want because they’re strong, but the weak kids have to appeal to an authority that is stronger.
So bullies can take what they want because they’re strong, but the weak kids have to appeal to an authority that is stronger than they are—and, in fact, stronger than the bullies. Strong enough to prevent the bullies’ behavior, or at least punish them for it. Now, once the authority intercedes, the bullies stop getting what they want. This, in turn, prompts the bullies to try to discourage their victims’ behavior of involving the authorities, sometimes by humiliation (calling other kids “tattletales,” “girly,” or any number of other names) and sometimes by threatening even worse physical violence once the authorities are no longer around to intervene (“I’m going to beat you up after school” and similar threats). These threats may or may not be effective depending on their perceived credibility.
I talk about this dynamic in this way because that’s how I experienced it—and I experienced it from both sides. As you might have inferred, I was the small, weak kid at school. But at home, I was the oldest brother—and therefore the biggest and the strongest. During my growing-up years, I could get my way by hitting my brothers—so long as Mom and Dad didn’t intervene.
(Now, I have to pause here and say that I did grow out of this before middle school. Since that time, my brothers and I have made peace and drawn closer together—in no small part because I changed as I matured. And then my brothers all grew up to be bigger and stronger than me, so they have that for their revenge.)
But going back to bullies getting what they want through personal force and their victims getting what they want by appealing to authority. These strategies can be solidified into a cohesive worldview by more than a decade of repeated experience in our public school system. The details evolve as kids grow older—taking lunch money could turn into sexual assault; telling a teacher could become telling the school police officer—but the basic power dynamic remains exactly the same. Now, not all bullies or victims go to the extreme examples I’ve mentioned here. Kids can and do change as they grow up, as I did. But the lessons learned in childhood often stay with us for the rest of our lives.
So let’s imagine how a child growing up with these (admittedly simplified) worldviews would look at politics as an adult. First, the former bullies—or, to be more fair, the kids who could get what they wanted through their own physical strength. Such an adult would be more likely to seek an occupation where you can get ahead by physical strength, such as dockworker, truck driver, or steel maker—the exact kind of low-education, blue-collar manufacturing jobs that our economy happens to be hemorrhaging at the moment. These are not bad professions! And if the people working them are motivated by their own experience of getting ahead through their own hard work, they can be some of the hardest-working people on the planet. This is an admirable quality, and we need people who have it. But our economy is not rewarding them the way it used to. Their viewpoint of how the world works is no longer being fulfilled—no wonder they’re angry.
Liberals often wonder in amazement why people of this ilk routinely vote against the Democratic policies that are specifically designed to help this exact group of people. But keep in mind these blue-collar workers’ lifetime experience with authority: when the teacher gets involved, they get in trouble. The toy they hit the other kid for (i.e. worked for) gets taken away. Authority structures have repeatedly prevented this group of people from getting what they want. Now you’re asking them to trust the federal government, the biggest authority of them all?
The former victims, on the other hand, have no such problems. Authority figures have been their salvation from injustice for an entire lifetime. When the bully unfairly took your toy away, the teacher got it back. When the jerk in high school took inappropriate liberties, the school officer taught you how to press charges, and a judge (another authority figure!) convicted the perpetrator of assault. Governmental authority is not just helpful, it’s the only entity strong enough to protect you from the people who are stronger than you are. Governmental power is therefore not something to be feared, but to be celebrated—because it evens the playing field between weak and strong; it protects those who cannot protect themselves.
Here we come to the crux of America’s political divide, crystallized in one encounter on an elementary school playground.
Now, here we come to the crux of America’s political divide, crystallized in one encounter on an elementary school playground: the meaning of the world “fair.” In a “might-makes-right” mentality, it’s fair that I took the toy because you were too weak to keep me from doing it. If you had been stronger and beaten me, that would have been fair too. It’s not fair for the teacher to take away a toy that I went and got myself. In the grown-up world, it’s fair that the rich have lots of money because they were better at business. If I’m good enough at business, I’ll get rich too. It’s not fair for the government to take away money the rich earned by being good at business.
On the other side—call it “social justice,” if you like—the bullied kid says, “It’s not fair that he took away my toy; I had it first. Teacher, make him give it back.” And the teacher probably would. Then, in the interest of overall fairness, (especially if the other child complained, “He always takes that toy first!”) the teacher might institute a time-limit rule so that every child has a chance to play with the toy. This is fair in the view of the victim child; the authority has imposed order through a set of rules. We grown-ups call them regulations. Thus, it is altogether fair and proper that government should regulate business, to make sure that businesses aren’t taking unfair advantage of their customers or other businesses—which former victims will be quick to suspect they are trying to do! This mindset is based on their own personal experience, after all.
But so was the other mindset.
I’ve mentioned business regulations, but this mindset informs a whole host of political opinions across the divide, from whether rape culture exists or not to what help (if any) should be given to minorities to whether the Affordable Care Act is too much government involvement or too little. It’s the great question of America: How do we balance the freedom of individuals to do what they want with the right of others in our society not to be screwed over by individuals’ decisions?
And in my own anecdotal experience, the people I find most likely to be Republican and conservative are those who live by their own strength: farmers, ranchers, blue-collar workers, entrepreneurs, and people who are already powerful in some way. Even people who played sports in high school (which like no other institution in America reinforces the idea that the strong should win and the weak should lose). And yet we need some of that mindset in our country. Capitalism doesn’t work without it. Technological innovation can be driven by it. If we quash this mindset entirely, America’s progress would grind to a halt.
And on the other side we have everyone else. A black teenager may not be bullied in his inner-city school, but he certainly knows how it feels to be the victim of racial discrimination. Other minorities as well—be they Latinos, gays, Muslims, or anything else. As a Mormon attending high school in the Bible Belt, I certainly felt it in a religious sense. (And I think that if more Utah and Idaho Mormons spent some formative years outside of the Mormon Corridor, they’d have a lot more sympathy for minorities and a lot less loyalty to the GOP.) It’s everyone who’s been screwed over by an employer doing something that should be illegal but technically isn’t. It’s the city-dwellers who know that their own strength is definitely not enough to get ahead in this town because there’s too much competition from all the other workers in the city. But in situations where competition is not desirable, these people are essentially right about what fairness is. And they do not deserve to be victimized, whether by schoolyard bullies or corporate ones. We need this mindset too, because people’s feelings and the quality of people’s lives really do matter.
On the eve of the 2016 election, I find it interesting that after eight years of the “teacher” in our federal government imposing more and more rules, the party of former bullies have nominated for President the very hyperbole of a schoolyard bully, all grown up into a corporate one. And on the other side, the party of former victims have nominated someone who looks and sounds exactly like an elementary school principal:
They’re certainly not the candidates we want, but maybe they’re the candidates we deserve right now. For good and bad, they represent us more accurately than we’d like to admit.
My first high school play was Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I don’t agree with the prima facie meaning of that sentence. But I wonder if it should really read, “All We Really Believe about the World We Learned in Kindergarten.”
Please vote tomorrow, and as you do, please keep in mind that We the People need to behave more like adults and less like Kindergartners, regardless of our world views.