What Drives Our Political Behavior (with Dr. Lilliana Mason)
April 13, 2023
Click to read the full transcript
Lily [clip]: Now that we have all of these other important identities linked to the status of our party, every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group, our racial group, our culture, where we live, and who we grew up with. All of these things get roped into partisanship.
Felicia Wong: This whole season is about what happens when some of the economic ideas that we’ve discussed on this show so far start showing up in real life.
Michael Tomasky: We’d like to think that if progressive policies make American lives and people’s material conditions better, that’s going to strengthen our movement.
Felicia: But here’s the thing. We know that we don’t make decisions only based on our material interests or our material conditions. We’re all also motivated by psychological interests and especially, by the psychological interests that are related to our identities, the larger groups that we belong to, or the things that we believe about ourselves.
Michael: And that’s what this episode is all about. How do our identities influence our political behavior and what can we learn from having a better understanding of these dynamics?
Felicia: I am Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: And I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia: And this is season two of How to Save a Country, the podcast about the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States.
Felicia: So Michael, when you think about all of the different identities that make up Michael Tomasky, what comes to mind? What groups do you belong to?
Michael: I try not to think about that, Felicia, but—
Felicia: Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael, come on! Tell us your identities.
Michael: OK. I’m a man. I’m a white man. I’m an old white man. I’m a journalist. I like to think of myself as a musician, though I suppose that’s in the eye or ear of the beholder. I’m a West Virginian by birth, and I still relate to that identity in certain ways. I’m a former New Yorker, an identity I feel a little distant from. I’m a Marylander, which I’m quite pleased with. I dig Maryland, it’s a cool state. I’m a dad. OK, that’s enough. What about you?
Felicia: Well, for me, I’m a woman. I am an Asian American. I’m actually Cantonese American. I’m a progressive, pretty card carrying.
Michael: Yeah, I’m that too. I prefer the word liberal. I’m perfectly happy with the word liberal.
Felicia: I know one day we actually have to have that conversation, Michael, about—
Michael: Yeah, totally.
Felicia: I’m also a political scientist. It’s been a long time, but I still think of myself that way. I’m a former Californian, but I still am a Californian at heart. I’m a mom. So that’s me.
Michael: I’m guessing some of these identities are probably more important to you than others.
Felicia: That’s true. And I’ve really learned, over the past five, 10 years, that some of those identities really shape the way I perceive things, often in these unconscious ways. These identities shape who I am personally, politically, and they shape the way I think and receive information.
Michael: Well, we know this more than ever in this country, and we’ve really been talking about this in some ways for 20 years, ever since we established “red” and “blue” America and the kinds of cars they drive in red America versus the kinds of cars they drive in blue America.
Felicia: Kinds of TV shows we watch, music we listen to.
Michael: We’ve been talking about this for 20 years, but it’s become more intense in the age of Trump and in the last few years, and it still is a question that we haven’t figured out, Felicia. How do we build alliances that can transcend identity or that can make people sublimate the worst aspects of identity politics and join a larger thing?
Felicia: Right. I think Maurice Mitchell talked about it last week when he said, “How can we join together to make a bigger ‘we’?” That’s what he said. He said, “You and I don’t have to share the same identity in order to try to get together, be part of that fire brigade, that bucket brigade to put out a burning fire that’s hurting people, and to do things like fight poverty.” We don’t have to share identities, according to Maurice, in order to have a common interest in putting out that fire.
Michael: No we don’t. But it’s still really hard to get a lot of people to see things that way, especially in the heat of political campaigns when certain kinds of appeals are being made to those identities that seek to prevent people from getting in that fire brigade line.
Felicia: Not just political campaigns, but frankly the kinds of infotainment news, whether it’s Fox News or TikTok or whatever, people consume every day really elevates identities in ways that can make that bigger ‘we’ pretty difficult.
Michael: We have to be really clear-eyed about the dynamics of partisanship in this day and age. Are there ways to get people to put those things aside?
Felicia: I agree. We need to understand that if we’re going to make all these economic ideas that we both really believe in into our reality. And I’m really excited to talk to today’s guest about all of these identity issues.
Michael: And who is that?
Felicia: Today we’re going to be talking to Dr. Lilliana Mason. Lily is an SNF Agora Institute associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. That’s a pretty big title. We want to really talk to her because she’s written a few great books about this question of identity in contemporary America. First is called Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. She authored that just at the beginning of the Trump era, and I think it is very important. Her most recent book is called Radical American Partisanship, which she co-authored with Nathan Kalmoe. I’m interested in Lily’s work because it lies at the intersection of group psychology and political behavior. I said I was a political scientist, so I’m interested in Lily’s own political science, and she argues that many of our political behaviors aren’t rational and aren’t even really individual because often we act as part of a racial group, a religious group, or a cultural group. What concerns her is that those groupings really increasingly align with a specific or particular political party, and so our political identities have become mega-identities. They don’t just represent how we think the government should work or our policy preferences, but they reflect where we go to church, where we go to school, what our values are, and our prejudices.
Lily Mason: The classic understanding of what politics should be and how voters should participate in politics is that we assume that we are all rational actors, and by rational, we tend to mean we are economically rational. We are trying to maximize our own economic well-being or the economic well-being of the people around us or the people that matter to us. This is something that political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels called the folk theory of democracy: this idealized version, mythological version of what we think Americans and citizens of any democracy should be. The reality is more complicated, in that we are not only thinking about our economic well-being.
Felicia: That original model of rational actor, rational behavior was never really right.
Lily: It was never really right. It’s the way that our democracy would work the best if we could control how people think and behave, but we can’t. In fact, one of the things that people really prioritize is their own sense of status and the status of people who they consider to be like them or in their group. That can sometimes even eclipse their own economic concerns. If someone feels that their status is threatened enough, they might make political decisions that are rational on behalf of their status, but are actually contradicting their own economic interests.
Felicia: I want you to get even a little bit more specific in describing that. I’m thinking in particular of this experiment that you opened your first book, Uncivil Agreement, with. This description of a study done in the 1950s or maybe the early ’60s about a group of boys, half of whom were called the Rattlers and half of whom were called the Eagles. Can you talk a little bit about that study?
Lily: Yeah, that was 1954. It was a very early study in terms of researchers’ exploration of why intergroup conflict happens, why humans tend to get involved in group clashes. Not for political reasons, but just why people fight. In order to answer that question, what the researchers did was recruit a bunch of fifth grade boys in the Oklahoma City area and invite them to participate in a summer camp, which they held in the nearby state park over a few weeks.
Felicia: They were all fifth graders. Were they similar in other respects?
Lily: Yes. They were chosen in order to be as similar to each other as possible, not just in terms of, obviously, race and religion. Those types of things in the 1950s would’ve been easy to choose, but also academic progress, social well-being, family situations. They were supposed to be kind of psychologically quite similar.
Felicia: So now these boys are in this park.
Lily: Now these boys are in this park, but they’re in these two groups: the Rattlers and the Eagles. The really important thing here is in the first week, they had the boys separated into two different camps and they didn’t know about each other. After that first week, they were then told that the other boys existed. So the Eagles were told about the Rattlers, and the Rattlers were told about the Eagles. What the researchers found is that the boys immediately wanted to engage in competition with the other camp. They started calling the boys from the other camp bad names. Once they met them and started having competitions with them—not serious competitions, but baseball games or board games or whatever low-stakes games—they began to accuse people on the other team of sabotaging them, of cheating. They were consistently privileging their own team. Ultimately, these competitions became so intense that they had to stop the experiment early because they had started throwing rocks and engaging in fist fights and getting violent.
Michael: How long did that take?
Lily: That was the end of the second week. It was supposed to be a three-week camp, and they made it two weeks.
Michael: What does this tell us? About our politics?
Lily: The main takeaway was that this type of animosity between these two very similar groups of kids was easily engineered. All that it took was for them to be separate from each other to form a bond with their own teammates and to form an identity with those teammates. In psychology, we call that their ‘in-group’. Just learning that there was an ‘out-group’ made them want to have conflict. They actually craved it.
Michael: What seems so depressing about this experiment is that we are worse than a bunch of fifth grade boys in 1954, right? They were all kind of the same. We are really different. The two sides in this country are fighting over really huge-stakes things. One side perceives that it’s losing its status and the other side wants to increase its status.
Lily: Right. The stakes are so big that even when we are trying to think of, “If only we could be more rational, if only we could talk to each other, if only we would listen to facts, if only we could use logic,” and really think these things through and have a calm conversation, all of that is always sitting on top of this very basic human trait, which is the need to identify with an in-group, to identify an out-group, and to try to be better than the out-group. We’re always going to be motivated by that even without all of these other important things that are happening in our politics. That’s just a baseline level of human identification and interaction that we’re never going to be able to fully get rid of.
Felicia: OK. What I’m hearing you say is that identity-based partisanship is really real and psychological. But we’re not fifth grade boys, thank God. And it’s also not 1954. My next question for you is historical. When you look backward, is identity-based polarization worse now than it was then?
Lily: One way to think about this is we all have countless identities. We identify as different things depending on the situation or who we’re talking to or what is salient for us in that one moment. You might not always think of yourself as a football fan, but during the Super Bowl, you maybe do. We always have these limitless numbers of identities. Some of them are more powerful than others. Our party identity can be quite powerful, especially during elections. Our racial identities are almost always quite powerful. Our religious identities are powerful. One of the things that we saw happen over the last few decades is that the Democratic and Republican parties were basically racially and religiously relatively similar to each before the ’60s.
Felicia: We were getting a lot of cross-cutting interest and cross-cutting cleavages, essentially.
Lily: Right. You could vote for different parties, but you might go to the same church or your kids went to the same school or you shopped at the same grocery store. There are places in your life where you were seeing people from the other party, not just as partisans but as human beings that are similar to you in some other ways. That makes it a lot easier for us to get along and to understand each other. But over the last few decades, what we’ve seen is that the identities of the Democratic and Republican parties have become more different from each other. So racially the parties have become different. The Republican Party has become increasingly the party for white Christian rural people. It’s racially, it’s religiously, it’s cultural, it’s geographical; basically, all of these identities have now become associated with our party in our minds. Before the social sorting occurred, the status of our party was the only thing at risk in every election. But now that we have all of these other important identities linked to the status of our party, every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group, our racial group, our culture, where we live, and who we grew up with. All of these things get roped into partisanship, which is extremely dangerous because our elections are supposed to be about government policies; instead they’re becoming, ‘which racial group is better, which religious group is better.’ These are not the types of things that we should be having national elections about, and they’re not the types of things that we can really compromise on or find common ground on.
Michael: And there’s not much chance of this getting better anytime soon.
Felicia: We have had realignments in this country, but you mean these identities that have been so cathected to our parties?
Michael: That the differences are just so implacable and universal. That they’re not just about politics, that they’re about how we live, where we shop.
Lily: Nothing is impossible. Our parties change and shift all the time, partly because we have a two-party system. Parties themselves have to shift to accommodate new positions and new groups of people. That’s just what they have always done. Ironically, in 2012, the Republican Party put out this autopsy report saying we should be more welcoming to Black Americans, we should be more welcoming to Latinos because there are religious commonalities between white Christians and Black Christians or Latino Christians. We could use this in order to expand the base of the party. Now, of course, after that, they ran Trump, right? So that’s not what they did, but that was on the table, presumably at that point in time.
Michael: But Trump got even more Latino votes in 2020 than he got in 2016 by being who he is now. How do we explain that?
Lily: Those results come mainly from men. And this is something that I’ve been doing research on and [I] published something looking at the roots of Trump—who becomes a Trump supporter—and using data from the voter study group data project, which is online, all the data are free. They interviewed around 10,000 people in 2011, before Trump was a major political figure. Then they reinterviewed them in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019. They still do it. The cool thing about that is you can look at people who really liked Trump in 2018, for example, and say, “OK, what were the characteristics of these people before Trump came around, before Trump was a political figure? What are the things they had in common before they started really liking Trump?” Going back to their own reported attitudes from 2011, what we found was actually that people who really liked Trump in 2018 had animosity toward either African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and/or LGBT people. The important part of that is that the people who held that animosity toward those traditionally marginalized groups weren’t all white Christian people. That included, for example, Latinos who didn’t like LGBT people or Muslims who didn’t like Latinos. Anyone could be a member of one of those groups, hate another one of those groups, and still be attracted to Trump. It wasn’t just all of these white Christian people hating traditionally marginalized groups. It was, anyone who had any negative opinion about any traditionally marginalized group was more likely to like Trump in the future.
Felicia: Right. This seems extremely important when we look at the makeup of today’s conservative movement generally. What you’re saying is that essentially, I think it was about 30 percent of people who identify as Republicans, so it’s not all Republicans, but about 30 percent of Republicans are motivated mostly by this kind of out-group hatred. What about the other 70 percent of Republicans?
Lily: The rest of the Republican Party in general doesn’t severely dislike members of these traditionally marginalized groups, but they’re not necessarily making their political decisions based on those sets of attitudes either. And they’re not necessarily aware that what we call the MAGA faction of the Republican Party is motivated by these.
Felicia: They’re not?
Lily: They’re not necessarily aware that that’s what’s motivating the MAGA faction. They can hear people say racist things. They can hear people say misogynistic things, but they might also hear them say, “I just want my taxes to be low, or I don’t want my tax dollars going to those people to pay for their health care when they are not deserving.” They can hear other messages that they do agree with.
Michael: Or an affirmative religious message, which is also part of it somewhere. I mean, they’re religious people.
Lily: Exactly. So they could be motivated by pro-life attitudes, they could be genuinely motivated by anti-LGBT attitudes that are not about hatred but simply about the way that our society should be organized. It’s not entirely based on hatred, but the problem is that that allows this faction which, to be frank, is a group of Americans that has always existed in American politics and an American society. It’s that they aren’t very often all consolidated in one political party. The fact that Trump was a lightning rod for this faction of Americans means that they have outsized influence than they otherwise wouldn’t have if they were either politically disengaged or scattered across our political spectrum. This particular faction who cares more about preserving status for their own traditionally dominant groups and is willing to break democratic rules and norms in order to preserve that status, that’s not a majority of Americans. It’s not even a majority of Republicans, but they can take control of the entire system of government because they’re important to the Republican Party as an electoral faction.
Felicia: I know you on some of your work and in your own podcast, which is terrific. Everyone should listen to it by the way, it’s called Is This Democracy. You’ve started to call politics that’s built around the outsized power of this MAGA faction anti-democratic. I’m assuming that, as a political scientist, you don’t make that claim lightly. What does this mean to you? How worried are you about this anti-democratic threat?
Lily: There are a couple of ways that I look at this. One is the difference between what we’re seeing in terms of what the right in general wants to do in government versus what the country wants. A great example here is abortion policy. The vast majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal. Even the majority of Republicans believe that people should have at least some abortion access. And yet what we’re seeing from the Republican Party, in particular from the courts and the Supreme Court and Republican state legislatures, is antithetical to what people want. They’re enforcing something extremely unpopular on their constituents, on the basis of the desires of these very small but powerful minority of people in the party. So that’s the first thing: this divide between what the constituents want and what elected leaders are doing. That to me is a real breakdown in the democratic process.
Felicia: Sure. Seventy percent of Americans actually support most of the economic policies that Michael and I have been arguing for on this show. Higher taxes on the wealthy, higher taxes on corporations, higher minimum wage, the child tax credit—all of these things economists would now agree are good for America and good for Americans. Americans also agree, but we still don’t see many of these policies in their fullest form in our politics. That’s what you’re saying is anti-democratic.
Lily: Correct. When you look at it from just a political perspective, because their policies are not popular, what we’re seeing increasingly is this leaning into cultural war type stuff and making people angry at marginalized groups, blaming marginalized groups for doing unspecific things like ruining America. There aren’t specific things that they’re saying like “This is what the role of government is, this is what we should be doing, this is how to make a government that’s best for all people.” It’s very much about pointing fingers at people and demonizing them in order to get mobilization. Because politics, ultimately, it can be about rational thought, but it’s a lot easier for it to be about anger. And anger is a really mobilizing emotion. It helps people get up and do things and so it’s useful.
Felicia: Well, if all of our politics in 2024 is organized around the state of Florida’s decision to teach or not teach an A.P. course in Black studies, which it looks like we might be heading in that way. Talk about using anger to motivate people in ways that are actually (a) are untrue, and (b) are just not salient to most people’s day-to-day lives in any meaningful way.
Lily: That’s really the key. There are things the government can and should be doing for people on an everyday basis that are essentially in the back of people’s minds at this point. Because we’re so focused on these identity-based arguments and these scapegoat-type stories we’re hearing, it’s distracting people from the actual… What we want in a democracy is to have disagreement, but we want that disagreement to be about, “What should government be doing to best help the people of the country?” That is not the conversation that we’re having right now because we’re fighting about all of these other things that make people mad but don’t really help anybody. That’s another part of the sort of the risks to democracy: It’s very easy to distract us from paying attention to the things that governments should be doing.
Michael: And on that note, we’re going to take just a quick break.
Michael: Let me ask your opinion on this. On my optimistic days, my thinking goes something like this: If the federal government can someday pass a lot of the things that Felicia was talking about a moment ago, things that materially improve working people’s lives—white, Black, Latino, otherwise. And people begin to see that everybody’s life is getting better except for the one percent because they’re going to pay more. If people can see that then maybe this animosity will decrease and maybe we’ll at least have some kind of uneasy truce where everybody gets along a little bit better and we can proceed on a fragile handshake with our democracy.
Lily: Yes, that’s the ideal for—
Michael: That wasn’t much of an ideal, but I’ll take it.
Lily: First of all, just getting to the place where the government has actually helped enough people, that’s a possible message that can be told, the story that can be told. But also is getting past these identity motives. These status motives are very strongly working against that type of story being told because ultimately all you need to do is tell people who are being helped that their money is going to take care of those people. It’s a chicken and egg problem because in order to get to the place where you have these policies that are helping everyone, you need to get people to agree that it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and that they will personally be helped from it, and that they are not basically living in this situation where their tax dollars are going to people who they believe to be undeserving, which is a really difficult place to get people to.
Michael: Do you have any idea exactly how widespread that sentiment is? That’s a tricky thing that I’ve wondered about a lot.
Lily: Kathy Cramer, a political scientist, wrote this great book called The Politics of Resentment, where she went all around Wisconsin and talked to people in morning coffee groups. A really common thing that she kept hearing was in rural Wisconsin, a lot of the resentment was coming from this idea that all of their tax dollars were going to help people in Milwaukee and Madison. And that all of the money was flowing into the cities to pay for undeserving, which is code for Black or just not white Americans. That did seem to be a really common story that people were telling and in fact it was absolutely false.
Felicia: Literally untrue. The federal dollars actually flow in the other way, to rural white communities.
Lily: And even the state tax dollars were going from Madison and Milwaukee into rural areas. The flow was in the other direction, and yet the very common understanding was this really incorrect thing. That to me is the big barrier in the way of this, because you have to change that story before you can actually get any of this legislation done or before people will embrace it as helping everyone.
Felicia: What you are suggesting is that the story, because you think about it in terms of its psychology, the story has to come first and that, I have to say, does feel pretty difficult. Let me ask you this then, because what we’ve been talking about implicitly here is how do you change the minds of that 30 percent of the Republican Party, right? Let’s say that’s a very, very, very, very difficult prospect in a very long arc. What do you think about building toward a coalition where Democrats, who are very diverse in and of themselves, believe me, plenty of very left Democrats, plenty of center Democrats as you well know, but also tries to make common cause and common purpose with the 70 percent of Republicans who are not motivated by out-group hatred. What are the prospects for that kind of organizing?
Lily: That’s really where the opportunity lies: in creating to the extent that it’s possible—wedge is the traditional political term, but not necessarily even a wedge—a better understanding of where normatively bad motivations are operating. Where racism and sexism and homophobia are operating, how powerful they are and how those stories actually harm everyone. There’s a book called Dying of—
Felicia: Heather McGheee argued in The Sum of Us, or in another book that you’re about to mention.
Lily: Yes. Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl looks at people who are literally dying years earlier than they would have otherwise because they are, first of all, really being told by Republican leaders that they shouldn’t want these things. They shouldn’t want everyone to have health care because that means that their tax dollars are being stolen from them and they shouldn’t want gun legislation because that means that their rights are being taken away from them and they shouldn’t want even just economic development in rural areas, which is desperately needed. Part of the reason why we see so many deaths of despair, suicide, and overdoses in rural areas is because a lot of these places are actually economically emptied out.
Felicia: True. So I want us to talk a little bit more about the book that Lily just mentioned, Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl. I think Metzl’s work is a really good example of what we talked about at the top of this episode: that our sense of rationality or our sense of our own interests isn’t only financial or material. Sometimes what’s more important to us as we act politically or as we vote is actually our group status or maintaining a closeness with the people who we think of as “like us.” Even if all of that comes at the expense of our health or our pocket books. OK, here’s a clip of Metzl discussing his book on the Bill Maher show.
Jonathan Metzl [clip]: Basically the core argument of the book is that the politics that claim to make white America great again end up making particularly working class white lives harder, sicker, and, in many instances, shorter. If you live in a state that, for example, blocks health care reform that lets anybody and everyone buy a Medicaid expansion, blocking expansion. Huge tax cuts that end up undercutting roads, bridges, and schools. What I found was, on one hand that gave many people the sensation of winning, but when I looked at it from a medical angle and from a data angle, those policies themselves ended up being as dangerous to people and particularly working class white people as asbestos, or secondhand smoke, or not wearing seat belts in cars. They were literally contributing to a shortened lifespan.
Michael: What he just said there to Bill Maher is a really good example of how powerful these psychological interests can be. And one particular thing, Felicia, is that people will deny themselves a public good if it means withholding that same good from an out-group, from a group of people that they don’t like, because that’s very satisfying to them. They’ll vote to cut their own benefits if it means that so-and-so other types of person won’t get it. And what do you do about that?
Felicia: That is such a good question, and I think it’s the question that is on the table right now, given that we do have all of this legislation that the Biden team, that progressives, that liberals passed last year. The CHIPS and Science Act or the Inflation Reduction Act actually speak to other psychological interests ’cause there is going to be a lot of money that’s going to go to places all throughout America. But is that really going to be enough?
Michael: I think it’s a project of many, many years to get people to think more about that kind of thing than to think about their resentments. Take the infrastructure act. Things are being built all over the country. Maybe in five years people will see that enough has been done, that they actually believe again that the government can do stuff. I hope so. I don’t think it’s any sooner than five years though.
Felicia: Well, since Lily thinks so much about the kind of grip that our identities have, I really want to know what she thinks about all of this legislative potential. Whether money and potential jobs and all of the federal support that’s going to go to rural communities. Does she think that those kinds of “material improvements” are going to be enough to get us past, frankly, some of the racial resentment that obviously motivates a lot of people in this country?
Lily: I agree that there’s a huge opportunity here for people to see what the government can do and how it can improve their lives rather than just making them angry. But that story of resentment is not going to go away. Right-wing media currently is telling that story and only that story, and they’re not going to stop telling that story because some bridges were built and some jobs were created. Even if we end up with some thriving rural communities, if people there are still hearing the story that they’re currently hearing, that evil demonic democrats are coming to drink your baby’s blood—
Felicia: IRS agents knocking on your door.
Lily: —IRS agents are coming for you, to steal your guns. All of these. Because you are having a more comfortable life economically doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to stop listening to these really compelling and emotional stories from right-wing media. Part of it is that it’s very good entertainment. Fox News legally is not a news channel. They have, in court documents, argued that they are an entertainment channel. They are not required to tell anybody what’s true. And because it’s fun for people. It’s entertainment. And so you can’t separate an actual objective indicator of well-being from the immense influence that right-wing media currently has on people, and the combination of that with the fact that we’re politically segregated. You’re hearing all these stories about evil Democrats, but you’re never meeting one and therefore you believe it more easily. Those two things are in conflict.
Michael: Do you think liberals, progressives, are doing something wrong? It’s hard to overcome Fox and all that noise, but is there something we’re failing to do?
Lily: I’m not a political strategist. I tend to think—
Felicia: People really want you to be one though…
Lily: (laughs) I don’t know! We don’t know how that would go. I tend to think honestly that focusing on accomplishments is a good idea. When Biden spends his State of the Union talking about all the things that he’s done to help people out, I do think that’s a good plan. The challenge here is how do we deal with this underlying narrative or threat of white supremacist patriarchy that has always existed and is still quite powerful and is clearly in a defensive position right now to the extent that it’s motivating people to join militias and to attack FBI offices and attack the U.S. Capitol. The challenge is how to talk about that in a way that is open and accessible and compassionate to Americans, because we can’t just ignore it. It’s the main challenge right now. It’s the thing that’s holding us back from having more economic prosperity for everyone. I don’t think we can get to a better place without talking about systemic inequalities in this country, but I also know that the history of this country is that we have never been very good at talking about that. And when we try thinking about history in a way that’s honest and exposes some of the really bad things that have happened, we tend to not have a very productive debate. Instead we hear a lot of yelling and shutting things down.
Felicia: So a message that is true, compassionate, and ultimately paints a picture of a much more thriving, much more win-win society. That is easier imagined than done, as Michael and I both know. But what I hear you saying is that it’s important because people need to be able to hear the truth, but also to hear it with compassion in order to be able to really take it in.
Lily: Right. One of the ways that I try to talk about this is to say, for most people, when we talk about racism, we’re not calling you a racist. When we talk about sexism, we’re not calling you a sexist, even if maybe you hold some beliefs that are incorrect stereotypes about people who are unlike you in any way. Those misperceptions, rather than being the basis for saying, “You’re a racist,” should be instead, “That’s actually incorrect. That understanding is factually incorrect.” Rather than being an attack on an individual, it becomes more of a description of reality. That would be like an ideal approach. It’s just that there’s such a huge infrastructure of right-wing media that is doing the opposite of that, and that is claiming that every type of that argument is in bad faith, and claiming that it’s an insult to the people who hear it. That’s the narrative argument.
Michael: I want to turn the conversation toward the future and what America will look like in the decades to come. And I want to ask you this. Do you think that the United States of America, as it now exists, will still exist in 2050?
Lily: It’s going to look like a different country in 2050. It’s not actually that far away. The country will be minority white by that time, presumably by 2042 according to the census prediction. This generation of younger people, like Gen Z right now, as we saw in the midterm elections in 2022, are much more progressive, but also more creative. They’re thinking about what politics they want and how politics should work. They are a more diverse demographically, but they also tend to be justice-oriented and if that generation moves into positions of power, which presumably that will be the case by 2050, the overall average of American positions will be much more friendly to democracy, economic progress, and racial progress. The one challenge to that is what we’re currently seeing, and part of the reason we’re seeing such extreme behavior from the right is because the coalition that makes up the right currently is a shrinking demographic. It’s old, it’s white, it’s rural. The Republican party in general right now is a minority party. They don’t get a majority of Americans’ votes on average in countless presidential elections, or barely in 2016. The rhetoric coming from the right is going to be even more desperate to prevent people from voting. There are electoral inequalities that it’s in the interests of the right to maintain, so that by 2050 they can have essentially a minority rule by white Christian Americans. So that’s the two visions of the future that I see. One is a truly minority rule by right-wing white supremacist patriarchs. The other is the brute force of the numbers allows us to have a more powerful young group of people that have energy and creativity and are trying to move things in a better direction.
Felicia: The things that we have been arguing for on this show for our entire first season. We talk mostly about a number of policies that are creative, that are win-win (for the most part win-win), that are in the public good. We’re arguing for more immigration. We’re arguing for greater unionization. We’re arguing for higher wages, higher minimum wages, for government policy that actually raises wages generally. We’re arguing for higher taxation on the wealthy, and corporations. We’re arguing for a more rights-focused, more egalitarian Supreme Court as opposed to a corporate-oriented Supreme Court. All of these things. I’m curious, as you think a lot about democracy, which of these policies wouldn’t just be good for people’s pocket books, but would actually be good for democracy?
Lily: The most powerful one right now would be having a court, particularly the Supreme Court, that is oriented toward increasing rights rather than, as they seem to be currently, actually removing rights that we had previously had, or just removing protections of voting, for example. Or as you said, looking out for corporate interest and corporate money in politics. All of those things would be better if they were not happening, obviously, but that’s really difficult. Part of the reason that the court is the way it is is because our politics are so poisoned already. Higher wages would generally make a lot of people just less stressed out and therefore have less need for scapegoats, which the right wing media currently really focuses on, this need to blame somebody for your unhappiness and often for your lack of economic well-being. The problem with that is that Trump supporters are not the poorest people. They are the wealthiest people in the poorest places.
Felicia: They own the car dealerships. They own the restaurant chains, etc.
Lily: Right. They’re the wealthiest people in the places that have been really economically devastated. So they still have something, they still have this sense of status and it feels very precarious to them. Any rhetoric about taking money from the rich and helping regular people could very easily be misconstrued in the media to sound like it’s an attack on these people. It’s not economic anxiety, it’s precarity. It’s the people who have something that feel like they might not in the future, and they’re really easy to manipulate with frightening rhetoric about how these people are out to get you. They’re coming for you. You better pay attention because they’re coming for you. This is what Tucker Carlson says every night.
Felicia: The other economic policy that I’m really interested in from a democracy perspective is actually greater unionization. Many of our guests have made the argument that the experience of workers in a union, the experience of workers in an institution that asks for a voice and collective action and encourages membership is itself a democratizing force. I’m wondering, as a political scientist, whether you think there’s anything to that.
Lily: As you said, in the basic procedures and practices of union membership, there is education about what a democracy is and the power that people have. In addition to that, union membership has historically been extremely important for increasing racial tolerance. In places where there are unions, people are generally much more tolerant of racial out-groups and there’s less racial animosity in places with powerful unions. That’s the silver bullet, right? You teach people how to be a part of a democracy and you teach them that these other people are not that different from them. You’re all working in the same direction. You all have the same goals, and if you work together, you will have more power and you’ll have a better life. That has been shown to work in the past, and that’s part of the reason that unions have been attacked so much from the right is because they do both of those things really well. To the extent that we can increase union participation significantly, bring it back to just where it was before, that would be a huge tool for progress.
Felicia: So, Lily, what you’re saying is we can save our country. We just have to enact all of the policies that Michael and I have been supporting for our careers and certainly for this last season of the podcast. Michael, do you want to ask Lily the final question?
Michael: Well, how would you save this country, in one big swoop? Just one idea to keep us started.
Lily: One thing that I think about sometimes is national service programs or some version of getting young people to work across the normal lines of groups that they currently live in or know, and be exposed to other people and have a project that they’re working on with those people, a common project where they’re all working together. In the ’50s when the armed forces were desegregated, there were sociologists that did studies on the difference between the desegregated and the still-segregated battalions, and they actually found that the desegregated battalions were significantly more racially tolerant. It was happening because all of these people were working together. They had the same rank. There were no hierarchy differences between them. They all had the same project, and if they worked together, they would get more done. We don’t want to force everyone into the Korean War in order to do this again, but something like national service where we encourage people to cross their traditional lines and meet people from other groups that they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise meet could really create a more tolerant generation.
Michael: Perfect. I’m with you.
Felicia: I love that answer. Lily Mason, thank you so much for joining us on How to Save a Country. The dose of reality that you’ve injected into this show, that all of these ideas have to confront a very dangerous small ‘d’ Democratic terrain, is something that we’re going to continue to explore this season. I’m usually a ‘glass half full’ person, so it’s really important for us to hear more from people like you about the reality of what this country is facing. Thank you, Lily.
Lily: It’s my pleasure.
Felicia: So Michael, the conversation in this episode has been so important to our entire project here on How to Save a Country, because Lily really makes us contend with the realities of partisanship on the ground.
Michael: Yeah. It makes me think about the many guests in our first season who talked about the need for better storytelling, and the fact that storytelling needs to speak not only to people’s material realities, but to their psychological realities, probably even more.
Felicia: That’s so right. That’s what stories really are.
Michael: I know a place where that story can start and it’s related to our now recurring segment, “It’s Not All Bad.”
Felicia: Michael, I love having you talk about what’s not all bad. Tell me more.
Michael: Yeah, there are good things. Check this out. A poll came out at the end of March from Pew Research shows that Americans feel really good or favorably, in the word that they use, about a lot of government agencies, starting with the National Park Service, which ranks first with an 81 percent favorability rating.
Felicia: I’ve got to say, I love people saying that government is good. I am a card-carrying Roosevelter, so yes, that’s great.
Michael: Incidentally, just by the by, in Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman recommended that the National Park Service be eliminated, that it was serving no purpose.
Felicia: Again, he was wrong. But anyway, can you tell me what are some of the other parts of the federal government that people really like?
Michael: OK, the silver medalist, a little bit of a surprise, the postal service, 77 percent. Third is NASA at 74 percent. NASA beat them to the moon, but they do a pretty good job.
Felicia: That’s right. Every day rain or shine.
Michael: It just goes to show that overarching rhetoric about government is bad, but there are a lot of positive feelings toward many parts of the government, and that’s a place to start.
Felicia: I think that’s so important for this whole new economics, progressive economics, liberal economics, Biden economics project that we are working on, Michael.
Michael: Middle-out economics, Felicia.
Felicia: Middle-out economics! Because the government is a really big part of helping to make our economy more productive and more equitable and more thriving, so that’s why I like this Pew study. When you think about government as this big, bad, vague thing, or when you think about it as this big, vague thing, it can feel threatening. But when you start thinking about, “Hey, we have government agencies that deliver the mail or help us advance scientific goals,” people can really connect positively to those government projects.
Michael: They totally do, and it’s a big failure, I believe, of elected officials and of our movement generally, that there isn’t enough defense of government. People will support and defend particular programs, Social Security and Medicare most notably and food stamps, from draconian cuts, but they don’t defend government as a general proposition. I’d love to see elected officials go out there and have a press conference in front of a lake where people are fishing and swimming and say, “You couldn’t fish or swim here 30 years ago. Who do you think did that?” It wasn’t general electric that did it. It wasn’t pharmaceutical companies. It’s the government that did these things. I really wish that more of that were done. I think we suffer greatly because people don’t do that.
Felicia: Well, I do think we’ve started to see that a little bit more in the past few years. We had Senator Elizabeth Warren on last season, she certainly talks that way. So more people are doing that. Yet, at the same time, I still do think we have to be realistic about how partisan identities, and, frankly, about how racial resentment really impacts our view of government, and impacts our view of public services. Next week, we’re going to be doing that in a conversation with Heather McGhee.
Heather McGhee [clip]: There’s a common sense that everybody knows—and this gets to neoliberalism—that things that are public have been degraded and destroyed. And particularly if Black people are anywhere near them.
Felicia: I’m really looking forward to that conversation with Heather, especially because she doesn’t just leave us in this depressing place. She actually suggests that we can work together and have this solidarity dividend that can bring us out of those doldrum. But until then…
Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at omidyar.com.
Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at hewlett.org.
To understand the challenges of this moment, we need to be clear-eyed about the emotional dynamics of partisanship and the dangerous tendencies they’ve fostered—people who care more about their group winning than the greater good, or about policies that would help us all.
Today’s guest is the perfect person to explain this phenomenon.
Dr. Lilliana Mason is an expert in political psychology and group psychology, and the co-author of Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy.
As she’s observed in her research, many of our political behaviors aren’t rational or even individual. And that’s because our political identities have become mega-identities. They don’t just represent how we think government should work or what our policy preferences are; these identities now encompass where we go to church, where we went to school, our values, and our prejudices.
“Before the social sorting occurred, the status of our party was the only thing at risk in every election,” Dr. Mason says. “But now that we have all of these other important identities linked to the status of our party, every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group and our racial group, and our culture and where we live, and who we grew up with.”
And later, Dr. Mason talks with Felicia and Michael about the threat of white supremacist and anti-democratic blocs, the importance of union participation as a tool for progress, and the need for truth-telling with compassion.
Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.
For more from Dr. Mason on the topics we covered in this episode, read her two books Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy with co-author Nathan P. Kalmoe, and Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.
You can also listen to Dr. Mason’s podcast, Is This Democracy, with Thomas Zimmer and Perry Bacon Jr.
Check out the other books mentioned in this episode:
- The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine J. Cramer
- Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl
And for more from How to Save a Country on today’s political polarization, catch up on last season’s episode with Heather Cox Richardson, about the unique dangers democracy faces now.