Speaking of Trump Voters… They Have Reasons, Too.
By David Ottlinger
I was as surprised as anyone by the rise of Donald Trump. I feel no superiority to the many commenters who, faced with what seemed impossible, have been scurrying around looking for what they had missed. I have been doing the same. In fact, it has been one of those rare moments when the seas of ink spilled on a media fixation felt justified. I believe a great deal has been uncovered and the average person who reads political journals and newspapers is now in a much better position to understand the average Trump supporter than when Trump entered the race. We have new insights into the roles partisan media, distribution of wealth, trade, and much else play in forming our electorate. But for all that, the more I read, the more I feel this inquiry is in an important way drifting in the wrong direction. It is not so much that it is asking the wrong questions, as phrasing the questions in the wrong way. And because the questions it asks are mis-phrased, so are the answers they receive.
A good example was Thomas Edsall’s “The Anti-PC Vote” in The New York Times.  The title made me very hopeful. Dan has already entertained the idea that rampant liberal censoriousness is driving conservative resentment.  Probably not surprisingly, I tend to agree. With this in mind, I began reading expectantly. Edsall began in the familiar way, gesturing at all the usual explanations for voter unrest: “resentment of elites, of the political class, of illegal immigrants, of protesters, of the media”. Certainly no objection there. But then, with a hard thud, I hit the following sentences: “[O]ne question has nagged at me. What is the psychological mechanism underpinning this resentment?”
The psychological mechanism. For Edsall this hefty terminology seems to require no explication. He seems to find its meaning self-evident, but he does attempt to justify it as the correct question. Before getting down to work with it, he runs down the litany of the usual anti-PC complaints, apparently as a kind of ground clearing exercise. By showing they are all inadequate he implies that other explanations must be sought. Certainly none of the usual suspects seem to impress him very much. The anti-PC voices decry perceived pressures on speech as “Stalinist Orthodoxy”, Edsall marvels. (This is substantiated only by a link to a 1990 NYT story which contends that the term “political correctness” carries a “suggestion of Stalinist Orthodoxy”.)  They seem to view admirable “government-enforced diversity and other related regulations” including “the network of state, local and federal anti-discrimination laws and directives” as something “censorious and coercive”. In reaction to America’s increasing demographic diversity and growing non-European populations, they seem to resent the loss or erosion of their former privilege. They “believe they have been dispossessed” and feel they have lost “power and stature to ascendant minorities and to waves of immigrants from across the globe”. For Edsall all such arguments are clearly unsupportable, so much so that the fact that someone would make them requires some further explanation. He seems to shake his head at the voters’ inexplicable behavior and goes in search of “mechanisms”.
The hunt begins with the ever-present Jonathan Haidt. Haidt supplies the notion of “psychological reactance” as a candidate. (Certainly this term is plausible in that it offers an answer which completes the heavy cadence of the question. “What psychological mechanism underpins voter resentment?” “Psychological reactance.” It sounds quite sufficient.) Haidt defines it as “the feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination.” That is to say, when ordinary people do things and are excoriated by social justice warriors, “psychological reactance” causes them to react by doing, emphatically, more or more of the things that have been labeled “un-PC”.
Now that this is true, I do not doubt for a moment. But I would not put it that way. I would rephrase it to say: When people are told they are told to stop doing something for no good reason, they get pissed off and do it more. I prefer this paraphrase in much the same way I prefer “Opium makes you sleepy” to “Opium causes sleep due to its dormative powers”. Scientific concepts are not required here and when employed they yield little insight. The important concepts are those drawn from common moral and political discourse: “anger”, “resentment”, “defiance” etc. In fact, not only are these ordinary concepts adequate, their scientific substitutes are inadequate in this context. And to say why is to say something crucial about describing human behavior.
Human beings can be viewed through a variety of lenses.  Such lenses emphasize different aspects of human beings. Viewed through one lens, human being are like a sack of dirt. Push a sack of dirt off a ledge and it falls. Kick it, it moves and gives an equal and opposite reaction. The same is true for people. But that level of description is rarely interesting in regards to people. Generally you think consciously about it only when you trip on something and find yourself wondering how hard you’ll hit the floor. The same goes for chemical descriptions and most biological descriptions. The really interesting descriptions are those that deal with beliefs, intentions, desires, inferences and so on. These concepts are usually normative, meaning in one way or another they involve judgments of good or bad, well or poorly, right or wrong. One can have right or wrong beliefs, reason well or poorly, have good or bad intentions.
Most of our descriptions, including the descriptions that underlie our basic, daily interactions with one another, treat of human beings as self-determining creatures. We treat them as not just subject to norms but following them, and sometimes failing to follow them. Their reflection determines what they believe and what they believe they ought to do. Not only are their beliefs subject to judgment but so are they. They are good or bad reasoners, actors etc. This is particularly perspicuous when we come to moral description. When we assign moral praise or blame, we presuppose that people act freely and in such a way that they can be held responsible for their actions. But this can also be true for non-moral judgment. If a kid gets a bad grade on an English exam, he is being held responsible for something. He should have gotten better at reading and writing and is being held responsible for not having done so.
Accordingly we can break descriptions into two broad categories. There are those that view human beings as causally determined, law obeying things. But there are further those which treat humans as self-determining, rule following things. These differing kinds of descriptions provide two basic lenses through which we view humanity. The essential point is that the ways of describing people that Edsall and like-minded people favor fall into the former category. That is to say that in their mode of description, people feature less like self-determining moral agents, and more like sacks of dirt.
This may seem surprising. After all descriptions like the “psychologically reactive” one make use of some of those terms of common discourse which feature essentially in moral discourse. They impute to people beliefs, desires, inferences and so on. None of these feature in the physical description which makes the human equal to the sack of dirt. But while this cognitive language uses many of the same terms, it uses them in an essentially different way. It describes people as causally determined. In such descriptions, stimuli and causal processes of the mind typified by “psychological reactance” are related to whatever results from the two. Edsall calls this thinking “mechanistic,” and he is right. The stimuli are related to the resultant thoughts, behaviors and affects according to laws and causal processes. But this fact places such description squarely in the first camp. That is to say, it treats people as causally determined, law obeying things. It is quite true that, due to the nature of the terms, the kinds of laws and the kinds of events being determined by them are strikingly different from those which figure in, say, physical description. But what matters is not so much the terms used, but rather the way the terms are used. As different as psychological and physical description are, they both seek to describe a causally determined system. In this sense they are both set equally apart from moral and ordinary folk-psychological description.
The problem with such descriptions is that it moves us out of what Wilfrid Sellars called “the space of reasons”.  When we describe people this way we fail to describe them as acting on reasons. We see them only as acting as the result of causes. Indeed it is not clear that, under such description, people should be thought of as “acting” at all. They are exhibiting behavior, certainly, but that is not necessarily the same thing. No more so than we “act” when the doctor hits our knee with the rubber hammer. Rather, the hammer strikes and the knee moves. We are not involved. (More on this in a moment.)
But, of course, Donald Trump voters do have reasons for giving Trump their support. David Frum is one of the relatively few writers to consider them.  He writes:
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
There is more in these few sentences than there is in yards of academic psychology. This kind of description has voters reflecting, evaluating and emoting. They are offended and suffer from a sense of injured merit. Above all they are doing something. Their behavior is not a mere output of some mechanism and its stimulus. It is rather the settled result of a process of reflection. In such descriptions, reasons relate to actions not by causal relations but by relations of justification. To put it more simply, it respects the fact that people actually have their reasons for voting for Donald Trump and arrive at their choice by reflecting on these reasons. In fact, it has the audacity to view Trump voters as much like any other kind of voter.
Frum helps us to see what these voters’ reasons are. He quotes from research on the Tea Party which was led by Harvard sociologist Theda Scokpol: “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients. The distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘people who don’t work’ is fundamental to Tea Party ideology.”  Frum believes such an attitude exists outside of the Tea Party and is driving a great deal of Trump support. When cuts were made in Medicare and transferred to the newly insured under the Affordable Care Act, voters with similar attitudes were incensed that, as they perceived it, their benefits were going to be cut to benefit the uninsured, knowing that the uninsured often meant immigrants, minorities and other groups they did not think of as “workers”. This transfer, argues Frum, was seen as “the ultimate example of redistribution from a deserving ‘us’ to an undeserving ‘them.’”
Michael Sandel struck a similar note in an interview for the New Statesman in the wake of Brexit.  Speaking of both American and British voters, he argued that:
A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties.
Sandel sees both the Trump phenomenon and Brexit as strongly parallel in view of being driven by these similar concerns. “What Trump really appeals to”, remarks Sandel, “is the sense of much of the working class that not only has the economy left them behind, but the culture no longer respects work and labour.”
These accounts of voters’ motivations reveal another thing that goes missing from “mechanistic” description: values. Causal descriptions of agents impute no values to them. If I say X exhibits B under condition C, I have no idea what X values. The subject, X, could value the behavior, be indifferent to the behavior, or disvalue the behavior. The description “X drinks wine at 5 o’clock” could equally correctly describe an aesthete who strongly looks forward to his daily wine, a social drinker indifferent to wine but willing to drink to be with people, and an alcoholic who is desperate not to drink but succumbs. In considering the truth or falsity of the statement “X drinks wine at 5 o’clock”, we are indifferent to all of this.
Of course in positing a psychological mechanism, psychologists are doing something more than this. The above three people are spurred to drink by different causes: desire for wine, desire for company, compulsion to drink. Psychologists would be looking to control for all variables. But really it makes no difference. Examples, even very plausible examples, could be contrived to show how different values can be consistent the same “mechanistic” description. In fact, there is no reason to go beyond “psychological reactance”. We can imagine three people who evince “psychological reactance” in a laboratory setting. When confronted with this fact, one might think “Yes of course I reacted like that! Never accept anyone’s domination!” Another might be nonplussed and say “I didn’t know that about myself.” A third might think “That’s terrible! How do I stop myself doing that?” All are equally “psychologically reactant”, but all three have very distinctive values. The roles these values play, or don’t play, are not at issue in establishing the mechanism.
Of course, in spite of all I have said, I would not want to entirely discount other kinds of descriptions. That would only be to slip into a kind of mindlessness and make the same mistake that I believe Edsall makes in the other direction. Many “mechanistic” types of descriptions have purchase on human beings and yield their own, unique kinds of insights. This includes the kinds of descriptions provided by cognitive psychology. Terms like “cognitive dissonance”, “confirmation bias” and “schema” have considerable use. Through them, we can state facts about the mind that we would otherwise be unable to express. Such facts are often useful and aid our understanding. My only point is that I doubt such concepts will be of much use in this context. When we try to explain why voters choose who they choose, we require a very rich kind of description, one that will have to deal with values, attitudes and moral commitments. With Trump voters in particular, notions of outrage and a loss of dignity deserve to take center stage. “Mechanistic” language is just too thin to do the job.
Neither am I at all interested in arguing that the justifications for voting for Trump are at all adequate. I am not even close to believing they are. In fact, I think they are balefully, tragically inadequate. I am not arguing that there are good reasons, only that there are reasons. I am not arguing that these voters are engaged in a good thought process, only that they are engaged in a thought process. In one way, I believe, I am more sympathetic to Trump voters than those writing in Edsall’s vein. I feel obliged to acknowledge that these voters are autonomous, reasoning agents and pay them the respect that comes with such an acknowledgment. But by the same token, my view places a burden of responsibility on Trump voters in a way more “mechanistic” views cannot. If we look at voters mechanistically, they cannot be held responsible for their mistakes, because such a view does not allow the autonomy necessary for responsibility. At best they can be considered defective. Their actions are the product of unfortunate “mechanisms” over which they can hardly be said to have control. On my view, however mistaken the voters’ decisions may be, they are responsible for them because they issue from their own free reflection.
I said at the outset that I did not undertake this essay to feel superior. Neither did I do it to abuse Mr. Edsall who I believe to be a very worthy writer. (I also do not believe Edsall is alone in making these kinds of mistakes. I think many of those who want to attribute Trump’s rise to mere racism fall into similar traps but that will have to wait for another day.) Trump presented us all with a considerable mystery and we all have to try to solve it as best we can. What I do want to suggest is that before trying to give answers regarding Trump’s improbable rise, we take a moment to reflect on the questions. If we do not, we are very likely to go astray before we have begun.
Interestingly, this article appears to be ground zero for the modern use of the term “Political Correctness”. Those interested should see Paul Berman’s introduction to his collection Debating PC: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses.
 Much of the argument that follows is based on the work of Wilfred Sellars. The locus classicus for his views on this subject is the classic essay, “Philosophy and The Scientific Image of Man”. The metaphor of “lenses” is drawn from that essay. Sellars is in turn drawing on Kant. Particularly interesting in this connection is the Critique of Pure Reason, A 532/B 560 and following.
 This concept is developed is Sellars’ Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. A brief account can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sellars/ See especially section 4: Epistemology.
In my judgment this is this most important article yet written on Trump’s candidacy.
Elsewhere in the New Statesman is great commentary from the redoubtable John Gray:
A particular highlight:
“Telling voters who were considering voting Leave that they were stupid, illiterate, xenophobic and racist was never going to be an effective way of persuading them to change their views. The litany of insults voiced by some leaders of the Remain campaign expressed their sentiments towards millions of ordinary people. It did not occur to these advanced minds that their contempt would be reciprocated.”
(“Leave” refers to the campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, “Remain” for the campaign to remain.)