The Underground Man

by Bharath Vallabha


Why did Donald Trump win in 2016? Many on the Left have settled on two answers: white anxiety and economic anxiety. No doubt poor whites, especially in middle America, are a big part of Trump’s base. Still, this explanation doesn’t ring true to me. For a simple reason.

I was tempted to vote for Trump. I am a middle-class, brown guy with a PhD living on the East coast. According to the left, I am almost by definition supposed to be anti-Trump. I am in many ways, and I voted for Clinton. But even in the midst of his name-calling campaign tactics and general disregard for truth, I was still tempted. Why?

I find a clue in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Here is a key part of that insightful, probing text:

What do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason, I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.

What is the underground man struggling against? Why does he want to deny that twice two makes four? It’s not math as such that he cares about. It is the idea that math – and more generally science – can explain him as a person that he finds oppressive.

The Enlightenment project of scientifically understanding the world and ourselves is, of course, inspiring. It was a vast cognitive achievement for humankind. But what Dostoevsky caught hold of was the underbelly of this narrative of inspiration. It is the raw anxiety and sense of helplessness of thinking that someone – a scientist or philosopher or economist or programmer – can understand me better than I can understand myself; that he knows the root of my humanity better than I do, and so can control and manipulate me in ways which I cannot anticipate or defend against. This is what the Underground Man feels. Like an animal in the cage of the scientist.

I feel the anxieties the Democrats want to account for. The anxieties behind the #MeToo Movement, Black Lives Matter, gay rights, Bernie Sander’s campaign and so on. I left a tenure-track job in part because at the time I felt overwhelmed by its Eurocentrism.

But I left academia also because I felt it wasn’t addressing the anxiety of the underground man. That anxiety – of feeling that human science doesn’t ever let you out of its grasp and aims to control every aspect of your being – goes beyond issues of gender, race, class, education, etc. It is a human anxiety.

I don’t feel it when I think of science in the abstract. But I feel it vividly when I think of the bubbles of power that are forming in big tech companies, elite universities and the financial system. When I think of Google or Apple headquarters, I feel like the underground man interacting with his “social superiors”: tinged with a toxic mix of admiration, envy and anger. Admiration for the good they are doing. Envy for the power and money they have. Anger for the seeming nonchalance with which they are taking control of my life, my data, my mind even and my modes of human interaction. They are not just helping me. They are transforming me and the world as I knew it. And they are driven not by a big-picture awareness and concern for all people, but by concerns for promotions and prestige.

Trump spoke to this side of me. One doesn’t have to be a white nationalist to feel something different is happening now than in the past centuries; that we are on the verge of a seismic shift in human existence; that people three generations from now might look at me the way I look at people from the Stone Age. Maybe this is an exaggeration. But it doesn’t feel like one. A part of me wants to say, “Stop! It’s going too fast! Let me catch my fucking breath!” But it’s unclear to whom I should say this or who could actually slow it down.

It is a sign of the power of this anxiety that even though I disagreed with Trump a lot, I resonated with the emotional stance he was taking, whatever his reasons for that stance. And I felt alienated from the Democrats’ constant attitude of “Onward and Upward! Any hesitation regarding the future is a sign of racism, sexism…”

As Trump promoted a fantasy of the past, Hilary Clinton promoted a fantasy of the future. What Clinton and the Democrats did – and are still doing for the most part – is combine concerns for social justice (which I share) with a rejection of the anxieties about the future that is being created (which I don’t share). Worse, they are identifying any such anxiety with backwardness, as if the underground man is really at heart just a white supremacist, so we can ignore his concerns.

This is a losing strategy, as is becoming evident around the world. To feel the underground man’s concerns, you don’t have to white or male or Brahmin, etc. When the Borg or Skynet comes for us, it is not coming just for the patriarchy. It is coming for all of us.

Dostoevsky grasped that a part of us worries that a world dominated by science and reason is like being colonized by the Borg. He didn’t talk about cell phones, Twitter, cloning and robots. But to my mind he got just right the mood of anxiety when one is nervous about the pervasiveness of such changes.

This is not a comprehensive defense of the underground man. He toys with the prostitute Liza’s future in order to make himself feel better. He gets her hopes up for a better life, only to turn her away. This is enabled by patriarchal structures. But the solution isn’t to tell him, “Give up sexism! Be better!” Dostoevsky captures this by highlighting the underground man’s difficulty in changing. He says to Liza, “They won’t let me… I can’t be good!” With this admission of futility, he sees that he isn’t the hero he pretended to be, and Liza sees it as well:

Why was I ashamed? I don’t know, but I was ashamed. The thought, too, came into my overwrought brain that our parts now were completely changed, that she was now the heroine, while I was just a crushed and humiliated creature as she had been before me that night.

How can the underground man help Liza when he cannot – and will not – help himself? In the very first paragraph of the story he admits, “I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well–let it get worse!”

This is the tragedy of the underground man, which Liza sees through and for which she pities him. He is so anxious about reason controlling him that he is unable to exercise reason even for his own benefit. Like a delusional man who thinks he has to fight his arm because it is attacking him, the underground man takes an oppositional stance to reason and is left with nothing but moments of euphoria in asserting his freedom. In the process, he is cut off from reality and engulfed by fantasy. As he says at the end, “We are so divorced from it that we feel at once a sort of loathing for real life, and so cannot bear to be reminded of it. Why, we have come almost to looking upon real life as an effort, almost as hard work, and we are all privately agreed that it is better in books.”

I am reminded of this when I see a Trump rally. I feel similarly when I see liberal protesters denying the greatness of George Washington. In both cases, there is a deep anxiety and a desperate attempt to feel in control through the affirmation of the will. Nothing is as delusional as that moment in anger when one feels, “If only I yell louder and show my displeasure more, I can be in control again.”

There is a philosophical debate to be had between the Right and the Left. But debate presupposes a sense of a shared world. Currently, the Right and the Left have transformed from philosophical positions into conflicting fantasies that cannot acknowledge the possibility of the other. Fantasies do not oppose, but rather, repress one another.

The fantasies of the Right and the Left have this in common: they are unable to look through the pain and fear of the transformations we are going through clear-eyed and with hope. To be optimistic in this way requires what the underground man couldn’t manage: to hold onto reason as a humanizing good which can bring people together, even while being critical of the dehumanizing forces of technological modernity.






75 responses to “The Underground Man”

  1. Zac

    I’m pretty ambivalent about this. I’m not sure on what concessions we should be making to the spirit of the Underground Man.

    I think a big impulse behind a lot of Trump support involves this kind of impressionism that prioritizes the feeling above all else. It tells itself it’s pointing a middle finger at this or that, specifically, or a very vague trend, generally, and then rests easy on its gut-level protest. Does it really matter if the finger ends up pointing in the right place? If it ends up pointing elsewhere? If he ends up empowering forces of domination that hem individualistic urges even more? Not really. Once you reach the point where you’ve decided that verification, facts and reason should be dismissed as means of domination, there’s no clear way out. Course-correction by way of genuine attempts to get a better picture of the world are severely hamstrung. We may feel like the Underground Man at times and want to deny the laws mathematics, but what literary precedent eclipses that passage in our memory? 2+2=5. The law of a totalitarian state. Precisely the law of irrationalism at the expense of Enlightenment values that concerns you, that reduces everything to a blind battle of wills to power. Precisely what so much of this blog has set itself against.

    I can’t say economic anxiety is the cause of Trump. Was it economic anxiety when Trump’s electorate skewed richer than Clinton’s, and when, before the election, lower-class Democrats polled lower economic anxiety than rich Republicans? That flipped remarkably quick. White anxiety plays more of a role, being one of the few factors to closely track a vote for Trump, but it doesn’t solely define the Trump vote. Some have even made the argument credibly that a generic Republican would’ve outperformed Trump in the general election. It turns out part of the story is an anomaly in our primary system, in our polarization, and in the striking way in which people will switch political positions on a dime to accommodate the person on their “side”. But hey, I’d have to appeal to statistics for that, and that would throw me out of favor with the Underground Man. Shame on me.

    We can appeal to literary figures and talk of mutual fantasies and then reduce the issue to a battle of two irrational groups (the fallback of nearly every political conversation now), and we’ll get at PART of the picture with that. But I’m not convinced we’ll have got to the heart of it or framed it in a truly constructive way. Because we’re not dealing with the tyranny of Reason here. Reason is late in human affairs and it’s struggling to keep up. Just consider the cases where we aren’t talking in abstractions, like when the issue is something like climate change, perhaps THE central problem of our time. We could both-sides this and reduce it to partisanship or frame it as a case of Democratic failure to convince the Underground Man skepticism of science, but by doing so, we haven’t taken a neutral position. We’ve ceded the ground to the political groups seeking to dismiss the scientific consensus and to reduce this to the blind battle of wills. This is incredibly dangerous.

  2. A few things:

    1. It is undeniable that a good part of Clinton’s loss was due to loss in rust belt states, where de-industrialization has devastated communities. Trump may not have any real solutions, but at least he gave the impression to these people that he cared.

    2. I disagree that climate change is “the central problem of our time.”

    3. I think it is likely that Trump will win re-election, and it is not looking as if the Democratic “blue wave” is going to be nearly as big as was hoped. Until my party — the Democrats — starts taking a hard look at itself rather than yelling “Racism! Sexism! Homophobia!” at Trump supporters, it will continue to lose.

  3. Zac

    “Central” or not, am I wrong to claim that climate change is a significant problem and that it’s a significant second-order problem to frame it in partisan terms?

    Yeah, she lost in the rust belt states by roughly 75,000 votes combined, so, far as counterfactuals go, we’d be chipping away at the margins to claim totalizing narratives with that. Tracking people’s concerns, economic anxiety was far less predictive of a Trump vote than racial anxiety.

    I don’t see how we get out of this without having a tough discussion about that. I mean, if we’re going to take Trump’s canniness at face value and take seriously his nose for sniffing out effective political messages, then we don’t have to look far to see where he thinks racial resentment gets him. He’s the candidate the established himself in politics by spreading conspiracies about Obama’s birth. He’s the candidate whose opening speech, after gliding down the escalator, was predicated on demonizing immigrants. He’s the candidate that called for the total shutdown on Muslim immigration. He’s the President who feels, in these lasts days before the midterms, that his best strategy is to demonize a caravan of asylum seekers as criminals and “Middle Easterners”. These aren’t peripheral parts of the guy’s politics. These are front and center and go a long way towards animating his base. People won’t get anywhere by simply dismissing all Trump’s supporters as racist, but all the same, we won’t get anywhere either by covering our eyes and refusing to discuss the frightening racial resentments that he’s eagerly exploiting. That’s a central part of the story.

  4. The problem is that we did talk about that. And we lost. Electorally — which is the only thing that counts — we lost big.

    I agree with Mark Lilla’s and others’ assessment of the loss. And I see no evidence that the Democrats have learned anything from it.

    As for climate change, I can think of a half dozen other problems I think are much more pressing. As for it’s being a partisan issue, nothing isn’t one nowadays. That’s just a reality we are going to half to deal with. And yelling “Denier!” at people clearly hasn’t done any good, electorally.

  5. Zac

    Then it’s clear we haven’t talked about either adequately. Enlightenment values don’t always win at the polls. I don’t, on that account, give up defending them. I fight harder.

  6. I defend Enlightenment values as much as anyone. But my values won’t have much of an effect if we keep losing elections. And our obsessive focus on social justice and environmental issues is going to cause us to keep losing.

  7. I think the Democrats ought to focus almost entirely on economics. Specifically, about what to do about the deindustrialized parts of the country, as well as what millions more Americans are going to do when their jobs are replaced by technology, given that not everyone can/should go to college and become a surgeon/lawyer/investment banker, etc. If they did that, I think they’d win big. But if they keeping banging on about climate change and various ‘isms, they will keep losing.

  8. Zac

    Can’t say how you can separate climate change from economics. From cause to effect, economics is at the heart of it. It’s a huge externality that we’ll ultimately and literally end up paying for in the future.

  9. s. wallerstein


    Were you really considering voting for Trump? We all have our Underground Man moments when we want to give the finger to the system, but from there to consciously and deliberately voting for Trump there’s a big distance.

    I admit that at times I found Trump’s put downs of the other Republican candidates during the debates to be amusing as I did his put downs of Hillary Clinton at times. However, my inner Underground Man doesn’t do the voting.

    I agree with Zac that climate change is one of the central issues of our time. Large sections of populated territory are going to be under water, causing huge refugee and food access problems for the poor. The rich will relocate to higher ground, of course, but that will all exacerbate inequalities and social unrest.

  10. I said, specifically, what I thought the Democrats should focus on, if they want to win. Seems quite clear and commonsense to me. And not much to do with climate change.

  11. Bunsen Burner

    The problem is that people think that the US election was between Clinton and Trump. It wasn’t. It started out as Clinton vs Cruz, but quickly turned into Sanders vs Trump. Unfortunately, the centre right does a better job of giving in to its extremes then the centre left. In fact, the Republicans have pretty ok with extreme crazy ever since Karl Rove. What this shows is the extent to which most voters are fed up with the status quo, and their hunger for new ideas and new approaches. The fact that the US is extremely ideologicaly divided is hardly news. This was obvious after W. Bush’s first election victory. Since then it looks as if swing voters in marginal constituencies have been the deciding force in US elections. Many of these voters, who voted for Trump in 2016, also voted for Obama, twice. People wanted politicians that promised hope and change. Its possible that the recent changes to Democrat representitives will force the Democrats to move far enough away from the status quo, that the electorate will start to taken them seriously again, though I am certainly not an optimist about this.

  12. This seems pretty much spot-on to me.

  13. Bunsen Burner

    This article is not about climate change, and I have no intention of derailing it. However, it is not particularly helpful to think one deimensionally about this issue. Future economic policy has to take climate change, in particular, a warming of four degrees centigrade, into consideration. Concerns such as fresh water, agriculture, coastal infrastructure, climate refugees, the status of fossil fuels, and many other things impact on a nation’s economy too much to be excluded. There are reason that the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review called it a threat multiplier.

  14. Bunsen Burner

    Its also a worldwide issue. It explains why in the UK we got both Brexit and Corbyn.

  15. Maximilian Stöckel

    The left or what perceives itself as left will also lose with middle class citizens if they continue to ignore (illegal) immigration. Trump had something no other candidate had, some sort of credibility that he might change something about it and of all the broken promises that is probably the only thing that he might get done. And if he gets it done, a smart Republican only has to style himself as a successor to Trump to win elections. All of Trump’s other failings will be glossed over because he managed something few of his recent predecessors managed to achieve, achieve real change at least in one area.

  16. Bharath

    Provocative and powerful stuff.

    “That anxiety – of feeling that human science doesn’t ever let you out of its grasp and aims to control every aspect of your being – goes beyond issues of gender, race, class, education, etc. It is a human anxiety… I don’t feel it when I think of science in the abstract. But I feel it vividly when I think of the bubbles of power that are forming in big tech companies, elite universities and the financial system. When I think of Google or Apple headquarters, I feel like the underground man interacting with his “social superiors”: tinged with a toxic mix of admiration, envy and anger. Admiration for the good they are doing. Envy for the power and money they have. Anger for the seeming nonchalance with which they are taking control of my life, my data, my mind even and my modes of human interaction. They are not just helping me. They are transforming me and the world as I knew it. And they are driven not by a big-picture awareness and concern for all people, but by concerns for promotions and prestige.”

    I wonder how much what you call “science in the abstract” has to do with the arrogant power games of the tech and financial and academic elites. Scientific research into how our brains work, for example, should be distinguished from manipulative technologies which such research may possibly facilitate. Sure, even such “pure” science can be perceived as threatening, but it need not and (I would say) *should* not evoke that sort of response. For one thing, brain research demonstrates the huge gulf between how we *actually* think and the Enlightenment view of reason (the latter being at best an idealization).

  17. The Republicans refused to work with Obama over immigration reform – and Obama pursued deportations more vigorously than any president previously.

    The mis-information about undocumented aliens has only stoked fears unnecessarily. Trump’s ‘accomplishment’ in this area is merely more mis-information and more fear-mongering.

    The issue requires a bi-partisan approach, proper information, reasoned discussion.

    Trump now proposes shooting at women at children if any stones get tossed at the unnecessary troop contingent costing us millions to send down there. If that’s an ‘achievement,’ then politics is devalued beyond discussion.

  18. Climate change is a serious issue, and more and more people are growing concerned about it.

    But I agree with Dan, it is not a trigger issue, that is, not one persuading center-right voters to change their minds at the polls.

    The economy is still an issue, if the Democrats could address its growing problem, the growing division between the haves and the have-nots. But although they leaned that way sometimes over the past twenty or so years, they always snap to a milk-toast center on the issue once in office.

    Civil rights can be a strong issue among some communities; ‘social justice’ in the sense that we hear on some college campuses, is a non-starter.

    The way to deal politically with the underground man is to allow him his narrow community and his wrong-headedness and even his self-destruction; but draw the line when he wants to insist that his is the only community; that his wrong-headedness is somehow superior to demonstrable fact; that his self-destruction is something he has every right to enjoy, as long as he doesn’t inflict it on others. And to allay what anxieties of his we may in the area of economics, security, and social respect.

  19. Zac

    Ignoring illegal immigration? Like Obama who deported more illegals than any other president in history? One of the grosser parts of his legacy, I’d add, but one that also gives the lie to Trump, someone obviously more concerned with rhetorical effect than truth. So is there real change in throwing DACA under the bus, separating families, throwing kids in cages, denying asylum seekers and undercutting LEGAL immigration? Perhaps, but none for the better, and none that address the underlying issues. And let’s be clear, they were (and still are) unpopular positions. People can slam Obama for not passing the DREAM Act when he had the numbers for it. I can’t say whether or not it was feasible between having to tackle the economic crisis and then Obamacare, but even if it was, I don’t see a reasonable response being the embrace of the rightwing fringe, which is what this is. We aren’t talking about two sides here indulging in their fantasies. There may indeed be a failure to reckon with our Underground Men, but what we’re talking about is the movement of the radical element to the center of the Republican party.

  20. > … in rust belt states, where de-industrialization has devastated communities.

    This is one of those things that are difficult to understand from a NW-European perspective (the UK excluded).

    De-industrialization probably couldn’t have been prevented, but the effect on communities could have been mitigated, if these states and the federal government had a decent industrial policy.

    Where I live, a large car factory closed a couple of years ago. 3,000 people lost their jobs, and if you look at subcontractors etc. the number probably went up to 8,000 – 10,000. This caused an almost nation-wide panic. An industrial policy was defined, in which participated the governments at several levels, research institutes, universities, entrepreneurs etc. The EU funded part of policy.
    There’s training program, not only aimed at workers but at entrepreneurs too. Companies are stimulated to modernize, digitalize and increase their productivity. Development of new technologies was stimulated, and so on.

    The result? The shock has been absorbed fairly smoothly. There are fewer people without a job now in the region than there were before the closure.

    I’m not saying all is ideal, and I know the US can’t be compared easily with NW-Europe. But it was clear from the beginning that “the market will sort it out” was not going to work. All the actors acted accordingly, across political party lines. The idea was not that governments were going to run companies. Their job was to create the prerequisites for economic growth: knowledge, an educated workforce etc.

    Perhaps naively, I thought that industrial policy was something with which the Democrats could have made a difference – but they didn’t. If they had an industrial policy, it stayed under the radar.

  21. Bharath Vallabha

    S.Wallerstein, For a few weeks early in 2016 I considered seriously voting for him. Though I was initially horrified by the escalator speech and his name calling, and though later I resolved to vote for Clinton and canvassed in Pennsylvania for her weeks before the election. Just as now I am voting for democrats in the midterms. I didn’t think Trump would win, but I consistently felt that he was an evolution of a new kind of politics and that the democrats are playing an older game. I imagine if he stays in office, he will win 2020, for I don’t see democrats evolving yet to the new politics.

    I agree 100% climate change is one of the main issues of our time. The Trump republicans are in total denial about it. Climate change is the effect on the planet of humans becoming technological. The underground man mentality is the effect on human psychology of humans becoming technological, and the democrats are in total denial about this.

    The main obstacle to dealing with climate change is itself something being created by technology: an inability on our parts to come to an awareness of ourselves as technological, proto-cyborg like beings. To deal with climate change, we need emissions controls, etc., but we desperately need to understand ourselves differently as well. My objection to the big tech companies is: they are buffered from this need right now because they _feel_ in control (wrongly) because of the massive money they are making. We will only really take control when we have honest, public conversations that we cannot control so easily what is being created.

    Likewise, I think the sjws – the ones who were focused on electing the woman president – are also in denial about the effect on human psychology of technology, and the ways tech is forcing a rewiring of thousands of years of cultural modes of being. My own guess is they are holding on to the race or gender issues in part because it makes them feel human in the face of potential dehumanization. They are acting as if dehumanization is only caused by colonialism or patriarchy, and they are totally ignoring the other form of dehumanization that is imminent, and which could be as bad as humans dehumanizing each other.

    I contemplated voting for Trump because I want public discussion about the underground man anxiety. I see it as a part of talking about climate change, and how to deal with it. What is obvious now is that Trump or no Trump, the energy he represents is a definite part of politics, and so I don’t need to vote for Trump to have these conversations. And I will respect that energy as something deeper than racism. It is getting expressed through racism and climate change denial, but the Trump republicans are ahead of the curve in dealing with the change in human mode of existence. I fully expect Hollywood and Harvard to come to it in a decade and then act like they discovered it.

  22. Bharath Vallabha

    Maximilian, Agreed. Only I don’t think Trump will get anything done, and not just because of Democrats’ obstruction. As far as I see, Trump has no answers. His main advantage is that the democrats are refusing to acknowledge the problem, so it makes him look smart and like a prophet. Illegal immigration and refuges is only bound to become a bigger issue with climate change progressing, and even legal immigration is an issue in a similar vein.

    The democrats want to see the refugees issue on only moral terms. But one has to balance moral claims with prudential claims. Whether a rich family takes in a refugee or a poor family does so are very different – and the debates in those households are going to be different. Here the democrats are living in the past, of America as a land of infinite opportunities. Not saying we shouldn’t take in refugees or more immigrants, or be kind and open to illegal immigrants. But doing it with a kind of far left, Howard Zinn type of self-flaggilation is really counter-productive.

  23. Bharath Vallabha

    Zac, I am not both-siding the issue of climate change. I think it is the issue of our time. I believe the scientific consensus. But the flip side is about human psychology and where we are at. Most humans still live in mytho-poetic terms, and they see no opportunity to embrace the scientific worldview. At least in my circles, most people who easily accept climate change do so because their livelihood is somehow or the other tied up with science, and they feel optimistic about that. It is just a fantasy to imagine that people can just accept science while they are losing their jobs or if they have jobs, who feel they are losing their sense of humanity to impersonal technology and who feel unprepared for the new world.

    I want to respond to climate change. It requires two things. 1) Controlling how we effect the Earth. 2) Dealing with fellow humans who are in denail about (1). Brow beating or shaming is a bad strategy for (2). When the climate gets worse, many democrats can be smug and be blaming the stupid republicans while we all go underwater. This is not rational. Just as we have to take responsibility for our ecological footprint, we have to take responsibility for talking to each other better.

    Climate change, immigration, economy, religion, race – these are all linked. This is the main advantage Trump has: he acts like somehow they are all linked, unlike the democrats who treat them in a modular way. But Trump’s way of linking them all is very rudimentary; basically, “they, the people opposing me” are messing it all up. We need a better way of seeing all the connections between these events.

    Though I support black lives matter or me too, this is my problem with them. They act as if climate change, mass immigration, job loss, etc. aren’t happening. I am all for Al Gore, and he has done a lot to push climate change topic. But he has failed to address the underground man anxiety – and that is a huge flaw. It’s like trying to treat cancer by only talking about the nature of cancer cells, while ignoring the patient’s anxiety about chemotherapy.

  24. Bharath Vallabha

    I didn’t talk about climate change, but it is very relevant. My main point is: the underground man anxiety is one of the things that has to be taken into account when addressing any big picture issue about technology.

    A family member who voted for Trump and denies climate change said to me, “If we give the democrats climate change, the game is over; they win everything.” This struck me as bizarre, but also very telling about his mindset. His point was that if he agreed about climate change, then he has to agree the “scientific class” has to take control and that he as a non-scientist has nothing to contribute and so has to be mainly passive. Like the underground man, this family member couldn’t separate “reason” from “the reasoning class” who will take control of his life. He couldn’t see climate change other than through the terms of who gets power if he admits the issue. And he saw those in power scientifically as pushing through along with climate change, abortion, gay rights, “taking away Christmas”, etc.

    Al Gore can publish ten book about climate change, but if he doesn’t address this problem about why many people don’t want to give up control to the scientific class, he is just not being thorough and honest.

  25. Bharath Vallabha

    This is what Dostoevsky got so right: many people don’t distinguish between “science” and “scientists”, and even between “scientists” and “elite scientists at elite places”. Just like many atheists don’t separate “religion” from “what priests do”. So for many people to believe in science is just a class idea, to give power to “them”.

    I felt this in myself as well. I was angry when I left academia. I thought I was doing it with a Tolstoyian spirit of communing with the common man, but nobody outside academia gave a shit. It was unclear who I could commune with. Unclear about this, I grew more angry with academics, and especially at the elite places where I was educated and taught. I felt I was losing out, and “they” were winning. I stopped reading philosophy because I had a hard time separating “philosophy” from “the philosophical class”. So when Trump spoke of “them,” a part of me perked up and listened. I resisted this siren call because I can separate philosophy from the posh parties in the Princeton department. But I have sympathy for the people at Trump rallies who can’t separate the two. Just yelling at them to separate the two is bad strategy, and really, its bad karma.

  26. Bunsen,
    The problem is that people think that the US election was between Clinton and Trump. It wasn’t.

    No, if you look at Congressional results for 2016 it is clear that the vote was between Republicans and Democrats.
    1. Seats
    44.6% Democrats

    2. Popular vote
    48.0% Democrats
    49.1% Republicans

    Republicans won the popular vote and they won the vote for seats.

    This was more a Republican victory over Democrats than a Trump victory over Clinton. This is the unpalatable truth for Democrats and it has little to do with Trump. In fact Trump did quite poorly since he did not carry as many votes as the Republican party representatives did. This was even more true at the state level.

    What happens at the Congressional seat level is the best indicator of overall voter sentiment.

    The bottom line is quite simply that the US population has roughly equal proportions of people with liberal and conservative outlooks. In such a situation power regularly swing between the two wings. That is a very good thing because over the longer period of time this tends to mean that the interests of both groups are taken into account by reaching a pragmatic consensus.

    It would be very bad for one group to have hegemonic power over another. The permanent imposition of the liberal will on conservatives would catastrophic, as would be the permanent imposition of the conservative will on liberals.

    This means that it is highly desirable to have a finely balanced political system that results in regular swings from one side to the other. But this has a consequence. You must get as used to losing as to winning. It means that when you lose you should stop all the weak kneed whining and instead learn to work with the winners. After all, when next time you win you will hope that the losers learn to work with you.

    Much as we like to look superior to the other side by claiming the mantle of truth and right, it is simply to miss the point. Democratic politics is a pragmatic search for accommodation between competing interest groups, conducted in a non-violent way according to agreed rules.

  27. Gautam

    ” But I feel it vividly when I think of the bubbles of power that are forming in big tech companies, elite universities and the financial system. When I think of Google or Apple headquarters, I feel like the underground man interacting with his “social superiors”: tinged with a toxic mix of admiration, envy and anger. […] They are not just helping me. They are transforming me and the world as I knew it. And they are driven not by a big-picture awareness and concern for all people, but by concerns for promotions and prestige.”

    Having worked both in Silicon Valley and in science, my take is this: I think many people in those areas *do think* they have a big-picture awareness and concern for all people (cf. the TedTalk culture), it just so happens that there is a particular story of techno-optimism that they have bought into and are committed to (Mark Zuckerberg exhibits this in spades). As to people in science … just like in academic philosophy, it is rare that people get into it for “promotions and prestige”, there is a story of scientific progress and understanding (let’s call it knowledge-optimism) that they have bought into. In both techno- and knowledge-optimism, the basic idea seems to be that the core thing (technology, knowledge) is “innocent” in itself, it can only get corrupted by other influences (power, money, fear).

    But maybe you are doing phenomenology, i.e., reporting your gut-sense as a layperson at the onrushing flood of technology and science.

    As a side note — I feel that discussions on this point get uniquely distorted by Trump. He is really a one-off with his own set of biases and preferences (e.g., Russia) and it is hard to talk about technology, science, demographics, etc.distinct from the Trumpism of the moment. But then (criticizing myself here) maybe the thought — “if only we could catch our breath, we can talk about this calmly and rationally!” — is unrealistic. Its not like ethno-nationalists in other countries are doing opening up a space for a better debate.

  28. Bharath Vallabha

    Yes, I was expressing how it feels to me as someone outside the tech world. I don’t doubt they _think_ they are caring about the greater good of all people. But I imagine the level of delusion surrounding this must be very high. What makes me suspicious is the utter lack of public discussion the tech companies are engaging in. They are making billions of dollars because internet, social media, cell phones, etc. are basically like utilities at this point; we can’t live without them anymore than we can live without roads, electricity, etc. No wonder Trump Republicans have no problem selling off national parks or monitizing roads – it is just what Amazon, Facebook and Verizon are doing in the tech world that is being created. I don’t blame Bezos, etc per se. But saying, “Trust us! We listen to ted talks and eat avacodo sandwiches!” even as they make cities like SF and Seattle basically impossible to live in for anyone other than them is absurd. Bezos, Zukerberg, etc. are the new robber barons, and their good intentions have got nothing with it. The democrats’ silence about this is scandalous. And the focus on gender, race is a great cover for these tech people to do whatever they want as long as they keep up the appearances of being “socially conscious”.

    I am fully on board social justice issues. And all for technology. But giving a blank check to the tech people, or to scientists about cloning or gene manipulation because they act woke seems to me a horrible idea. Hypocrisy is hypocrisy, on the right or the left. If the left doesn’t confront its hypocrisy, it can’t productively challenge it on the right.

    Not sure Trump is a unique figure. He is setting a template for people to follow after him. Even the link with Russia is not really a one off. My sense is there is a general battle forming between globalists (tech, science, academia) and nationalists (ethic identities, religions, national boundaries), and from this perspective, Trump is not that different from similar figures in other countries. I don’t like either of these globlist or nationalist camps as currently forming, and prefer to create other options.

  29. Max

    I am well aware that Obama did deport more illegal immigrants than all of his predecessors. And although I am very much in favour of expelling illegal immigrants, the state would have done better if it never had let those people in. Instead, thousands of people who have been living in the US for years now, have made it their home, are now forced to leave and go back to countries where they have nothing. This could have been prevented by controlling the borders. And I don’t buy that a super power like the US, capable of waging war anywhere on the planet, cannot control its southern border. The US does have the money (biggest military budget by far) and the technology to make it work. Building a wall might sound ridiculous to you, but to me it at least looks like a solution and recent German history has shown that a wall can be very effective in controlling migration.

    What I meant by ignoring illegal immigration was the lack of an intelligent and systematic approach directed at tackling this problem. Enforcing the law after you have failed to do so for years leads to the ugly situation I have described above, nonetheless, at some stage you have to enforce the law.

    I am German, not living in the US, but I know a healthy dose of people, mostly my family, that live across the pond. They do hold mostly conservative views, especially on immigration – although they do not vote Republican – but I do not think that their worries make them a fringe element of the right. Think of them as overly cautious people when it comes to immigration and I think they are right in being so. Few failed policies can have an impact as lasting and detrimental as a failed immigration policy.

    Also, as a German I do not have to live and suffer under Trump and his policies, hence I see him in a more positive light. I do not measure US presidents so much in what they do for their countrymen but in what damage/good they do to my country. Trump unlike any Democrats was opposed to TTIP and he delivered on that. He also shows at least a willingness to engage with Russia when it comes to Syria, a conflict stoked by Democrats that gave Europe a large part of the migrant crisis. For that last reason alone I was rooting against Clinton!

    As for climate change, US policy in that regard has been awful for a long time. We are constantly told that the situation requires serious multilateral action lead by the most powerful and most populated countries, namely the US, India and China, and I believe that. If the problem can only be tackled or alleviated by monumental effort, why is Trump so much worse? The little that Democrats would do better would not be sufficient either.


    I agree that the more time passes the less likely it seems that Trump will get anything done. However, Trump voters had hope and hope dies last.

    I can see why Trump

    to my interlocutors, I hope that explains a little bit. I did not intend to cause ire.

  30. s. wallerstein


    You seem so rational and centered that it’s hard to imagine your considering voting for Trump.

    That you dropped out of Princeton philosophy in the spirit of Tolstoy shows courage, especially if you don’t have Tolstoy’s fortune to fall back on. Lots of people, including me, dropped out back in my youth, the late 60’s and early 70’s, but the general economic situation was different and anyone with some university education was sure of a well-paying job back then.

  31. Bharath Vallabha

    I wasn’t at Princeton. I studied at Cornell and Harvard, and taught at Bryn Mawr. I always felt I missed the 60s energy and leaving academia was my rebellion against both the current status quo and also my Indian family’s doctor-lawyer-engineer mindset. I wanted (and want) to contribute morally and intellectually to my adopted country, and not simply treat America as a space of economic progress.

    When I left academia, a friend of mine from Harvard joked, “I hope I don’t see you on Fox News”. The joke was obvious: as a brown man critical of academia and with some credentials, a Dinesh Desouza type path was a possibility. I couldn’t see that for myself. But when Trump was running, there was a natural affinity of resentment. My main objection to academic philosophy was that it was fostering a false sense of universalism – pretending to be neutral. Suddenly here was this guy making basically that kind of claim central to his platform against the media and academia. Some identification with Trump on my part was inevitable. Not with his elavator speech or his conspiracy theories, but a sense that perhaps he is grunting at what I believe more reflectively. I naturally thought this is how Heidegger might have felt with Hitler. Frankly, it was that thought which pulled me back from really purpusing voting for Trump. Not that Trump is Hitler, but no matter how much I respect the tragedy of the underground man, that is no reason to support gut instinct politics. But that is also not a reason to support the democrats uncritically.

  32. I want to suggest another way to look at the matter.

    With the shift from pastoral to agricultural styles of living we gained the ability to accumulate wealth. And so we did, with great fervour. But some people proved rather more adept at accumulating wealth. They realised that wealth could be had by monopolising the primary source of wealth, the land. The more able, ruthless and savage seized the land and put into place institutions to protect their ownership of the land. This land was rented out to peasants, serfs and tenant farmers. This rent, made possible by the monopoly of land, was the primary source of wealth of the aristocracy, who may be more accurately called the kleptocrats.

    This situation persisted for thousands of years because the kleptocrats were exceeding hard to dislodge. And when they were dislodged a new generation of kleptocrats took their place and it was back to square one.

    However the industrial revolution changed all this because because industry created a new source of wealth not monopolised by the kleptocrats. Access to this wealth was no longer rigidly limited by aristocratic institutions. This unleashed a new scramble for wealth that had dire results for the aristocracy. That was because the majority of the tenant farmers left the land to work in the cities, depriving the aristocrats of their source of wealth. This new scramble for wealth proved to be far more egalitarian, opening the doors to all and sundry.

    This had the remarkable consequence that a new proletariat expected, demanded and got a say in how they were governed. This was reflected in the growth of democratic institutions.

    But one thing had not changed and that was the nature of the beast. The greatest wealth was not to be had by producing more, but by monopolising more. This is the oldest truth in human history. Consequently a new breed of kleptocrats evolved who directed their efforts at monopolising the new sources of wealth, industry, business and trade.

    But there was an obstacle in the way and that was the democratic institutions created in the wake of the first great destruction of wealth monopolies, the land. The new breed of kleptocrats are intelligent, determined and motivated. They quickly discovered that to monopolise the new sources of wealth they had to neuter democratic controls. This is what they have set about doing, buying off representatives by, among other things, funding their elections campaigns and buying off legislation with lavishly funded lobbying.

    This is a work in progress but has so far been remarkably successful, resulting in the 0.1% wealth phenomenon. Just as the previous wealth monopoly, that of the land, resulted in grievous injustice, so too this will result in grievous injustices. Monopolists/kleptocrats are, and always have been, ruthless people.

    The major parties have been captured to such an extend that they no longer offer significant protection against the kleptocrats. This resulting monopolisation of wealth is causing grave strains in society, cracks are appearing everywhere and it may soon fracture. The unhealthy, indeed toxic manifestations in politics are the evidence of this mounting strain in society. This is what the Underground Man is subliminally experiencing.

    This is the real issue that must be faced. It has nothing to do with conservative or liberal strains of thinking. When wealth is monopolised it moves from our pockets into the pockets of the few. We all become losers, ferociously fighting in the filth of the streets for a few miserable left overs. The kleptocrats will regulate this street brawl, since, at the end of the day, they still need obedient customers, just as in previous times, they needed obedient tenant farmers.

    This regulation will have nice sounding names designed dull our sensitivities. It will be enforced, not by steel but by silicon, which may be even more effective.

  33. According to the official summary, total percentagewise, including presidential vote: 49.19% Democrat, 45.88% Republican., page 8.

    The Republicans did receive 1.1 million vote more than Dems in the House, but Dems received 10 million more votes for the Senate than the Reps.

    I don’t know the source of your percentages, but I must question its accuracy.

  34. s. wallerstein

    I believe that you can find a better vehicle for your undoubted creativity, intelligence and fairly unique point of view than Fox News.

    The difference with Heidegger is that, as far as I know, Heidegger was an opportunistic careerist, obsessed with advancing in the academic hierarchy/bureaucracy and very happy that his Jewish rivals were eliminated.

  35. Zac

    Hi, Max.

    I’m not angry at you. I’m just being frank and trying to make sure we’re not losing sight of the history here. The left hasn’t ignored illegal immigration. When you look at the bills and look at the votes, Democrats have dominated the push for comprehensive illegal immigration for years. The story has been complicated, but one of the main themes since at least 2001 has been bipartisan legislation that’s managed to get by one side of Congress but not the other. One of the last big ones that got closest to passing was in 2013. Again, bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate and had the votes to pass in the House, but was never brought up for vote because Boehner decided to invoke the so-called Hastert Rule requiring that a majority of his party in the House support it. End result, a bill with the support of the majority of lawmakers (and also the majority of the country) was dead in the water. It was a bill, what’s more, that had significant concessions to the hardliners, including drastically increased border security and stricter worker requirements. The notion that Democrats only have moral arguments here and just want to give amnesty to illegals without any border protection or limits simply isn’t accurate. Part of the argument has always been one adopted by both the left and the more libertarian sectors of the electorate, that immigration is ultimately a boon to the economy and that it’s ills are drastically overstated.

    Bear in mind, also, that the majority of illegal immigrants in the country are people who’ve overstayed their visas, not people who’ve crossed the border. The wall is more of a distraction than anything, and not a particularly useful one. Back in the 90s, when Democrats tacked rightward, Clinton beefed up and expanded the wall, and what we got was a lot more illegals dying in the desert and A LOT more illegals stuck in the country. How’s that? Well, people were dying in the desert because they had to take much more dangerous routes and the illegal population grew in the US because it was harder to get out. A lot of those people were seasonal workers doing jobs that Americans don’t care to do but that our economy is dependent on.

    And even so, last year Democrats were perfectly fine to concede on Trump’s wall and give that to him, but he changed course and demanded that LEGAL immigration be drastically reduced, an extreme position he hadn’t even forwarded on the campaign trail. He simply isn’t a good symbol of the country’s sentiments or for real change. He’s just a schizoid advertisement for himself. To get somewhat of a better sense of public opinions, see here:

    So yeah, what does the Underground Man tell us about all of that. If he discourages us from trying to make these clarification, of appealing to a factual record or any authorities whatsoever, then I can’t say he’s any more useful to us than the leftists that dismiss Reason as simply power dynamics. Getting down into the nitty gritty of all this is hard and messy and that’s why so few people do it, but without it, we’re steering blind here.

  36. Bharath Vallabha

    Great comment. Especially like the big history perspective.

    One thing the underground man experiences is a lack of control. Currently he is promised a democracy, but unclear that his voting is controlling anything. Voting is important and I am voting tomorrow. But what we control through voting seems all out of proportion to the changes that are happening so quickly and so deeply that it doesn’t seem in our control.

    There is another dimension as well. It is one thing to feel like the people in power (the kleptocrats) are using things we understand to control us. The aristocracy and the peasants were bonded through religion, and this gave some sense that there was a common bond. The king might be picked by God, but the kind of power the king had was no different than the kind of power the father had in the home. Science and technology changes this. I am well educated, but not in computers. The programmers and scientists have a kind of power over my life which does not map on to any folk notion of power – such as, say, that of physical, or paternal, or psychological power over another person. This is what the underground man is rebelling against in the story: a Kafkaesque sense of this disembodied, non-local, amorphous power in the language of 2+2=4. There is this sense that something is deeply wrong, but it’s unclear who to blame.

    This is the grip of the fantasies of the right and left. The right has focused on the media and the academy and hollywood as who to blame. The left has focused on the Nazis, the colonialists in the past, the patriarchy as root of the blame. Both are partly right, but way off about the extent. The underground man anxiety is really that in a world of science and technology, you can’t blame any one person – the way one could the local ruler or the village head, or the family leader. And so the underground man in the story kind of blames everyone, including himself – he loses the ability to form healthy identities in real life, and sees “stories” and “books” as the only space in which he can ground himself.

    This is one of the main challenges of our time: how to balance humanity and technology. Our current politics, devolved as it is, is still an attempt to have the conversation only in folk human terms, as it has been for hundreds of years. That itself is part of the fantasy. To break through the fantasy we have to figure out what democracy means in a context of bots, and people outside a country affecting elections, what deliberation means when our emotions are affected by our phones, etc. Not to mention all the money spent by the rich.

  37. One reason I decided to reply to labnut on the 2016 statistics, is because I think it possible we will end up with a permanent Minority-Controlled government here, and that raises an awful lot of questions concerning the nature of ‘democracy’ here, including questions of law and accountability, and questions concerning the various means of maintaining control by the Minority – gerrymandering, voter suppression, targeting the Electoral Congress districts rather than appealing to the broader mass of the electorate. Democrats have been complicit with that in the past, and don’t take the need for election reforms as seriously as they might, thinking they may want to do that if themselves if they ever get into the driver’s seat. But Here’s their problem – they may never get into the driver’s seat again.

    Beyond finding someway to appeal to the Underground Man, beyond somehow reconstructing a working-middle class agenda and maintaining a ‘big tent’ appeal, the Democrats would do well to push seriously for elections reform – should they ever get the chance.

  38. Zac

    Hi, Bharath.

    I’m not so sure. Like I said, I definitely agree that browbeating won’t help, but I don’t think we have to give into the metanarrative that what we’re seeing is just two sides throwing fantasies at each other. It’s more complicated than that. Hence, I forwarded the example of climate change. There’s certainly a responsibility to do proper outreach on this. There’s also the responsibility, you don’t mention, for people to actually accept some outreach and approach the issue and the evidence in good faith. And that hasn’t happened largely on account of powerful special interests, skewing the national conversation.

    Are people upset by science or afraid of technological change? I’m sure some are in various ways. I’m less sure this is the main driver of what we’re talking about. When you talk about big tech, for instance, that’s a big part of the economy, but a much smaller part of employment, and far as sentiments go:

    We’re always dangerously close to overinterpreting everything, especially when it comes to politics. Democrats will potentially make gains tomorrow and part of that involves some repudiation of Trump. But part of that is also just in keeping with historical trends for midterm elections. The president’s party typically loses. Likewise, after two presidencies, the other party has the wind at its sails to gain the presidency in the next election, which is what we saw here. Like I said, a generic Republican may have even had a better chance than Trump. Voters, by and large, are very disengaged and don’t hew to a consistent ideology, so what we end up with is a lot of baked-in tendencies in the system to favor a simplistic, polarized dynamic, with the candidate’s philosophy probably being less important than we think.

  39. alandtapper1950

    Brilliant. But “We all become losers, ferociously fighting in the filth of the streets for a few miserable left overs”? I don’t see it. In my world the kids all have smart phones and iPads, the oldies compete to tell their latest travel stories, television is full of food shows, housing size increases steadily, cars get ever more complex. And public social expenditure as a percentage of GDP continues to rise, driven mainly by public health budgets.


  40. EJ,
    I don’t know the source of your percentages, but I must question its accuracy.

    By all means do, but don’t raise your question with me. Here is my source. I believe it it is impeccable:,_2016#Colorado

    I used the House of Representatives results since the entire body was reelected, unlike the Senate, reasoning that this would make it a better indicator of attitudes towards Republican and Democratic parties and thus more truly reflect conservative and liberal sentiment. As the rest of my comment makes very clear, it is the rough equity of conservative and liberal sentiment that I am discussing.

    Yes, I did mistakenly use the term ‘Congress’ in place of the term ‘House of Representatives’, but hell, cut me some slack, I am after all an Unamerican!

    With that small change of one term[!] I stand by my comment in its entirety(which you did not address).

    If you read my next comment you will see where I am going with this line of reasoning. What I am saying in effect is that if you take a long view, the democratic experiment was an aberration in the history of mankind that temporarily halted the control of the kleptocrats over wealth and power.

    Since the kleptocrats are more motivated, more intelligent and have greater resources, they are busily learning how to reassert their control over wealth and power. In the face of this compelling reality the distinctions between liberals and conservatives no longer matter. The political parties that ostensibly represent these two broad schools are now being neutered by the kleptocrats with the result that they tend more to the interests of the kleptocrats than they do to those of their constituencies.

    This is the central, urgent and compelling issue that we must somehow confront. It is not just an American issue. There is a world-wide resurgence of the kleptocrats. This fact shouldn’t surprise us since the nature of the beast has not changed. Inevitably its nature will reappear.

  41. Thanks Alan.
    As you noted, I did resort to some hyperbole to emphasise my point, as I do from time to time. But even so, I can see that you and I live in different worlds. I will later address this in more depth.

  42. Bharath,

    There is another dimension as well. It is one thing to feel like the people in power (the kleptocrats) are using things we understand to control us. The aristocracy and the peasants were bonded through religion, and this gave some sense that there was a common bond. The king might be picked by God, but the kind of power the king had was no different than the kind of power the father had in the home. Science and technology changes this. I am well educated, but not in computers. The programmers and scientists have a kind of power over my life which does not map on to any folk notion of power – such as, say, that of physical, or paternal, or psychological power over another person.

    I tip my hat to you, this is a lovely insight.

    The aristocracy and the peasants were bonded through religion, and this gave some sense that there was a common bond.
    I agree with this and in fact it was a common bond of ostensible values that both sides understood, even if unequally applied. Additionally there was a sense that both were answerable to the same destiny.

    But there is more to it. Consider that the kleptocrats came to be called the ‘Nobility’. This was the grandest and most successful PR exercise in all of history. But it was more than a PR exercise. They did genuinely, in a very imperfect way, mind you, aspire to be more cultivated, more refined and better educated. They more ostensibly embraced virtue ethics and made this the defining core of their ethos(again, very imperfectly). All of this earned respect from the subject classes and it was this respect, much more than raw power, which enabled the continuing control of the kleptocrats. We beautifully see the remnants of this today, in the manner that much of the world admire the British Royal Family.

    Now fast forward to the present time and we see something very different where there is a fundamental lack of respect. We may, in some ways, admire or envy the kleptocrats but we no longer respect them. This creates a deep sense of unease and disconnect, which is what I think you are addressing in your essay.

  43. Bharath,
    I am well educated, but not in computers. The programmers and scientists have a kind of power over my life

    It is very interesting that you say this.

    Though training as a metallurgist and working for some time as one(a wonderful experience), I spent the greater part of my working life in the programming field. Doing this I discovered something quite remarkable about myself and my fellow programmers. I will now describe the dirty little secret that all should know.

    What I discovered is that programming is the exquisite exercise of power, pure and simple. It is thrilling, and once discovered, cannot be relinquished. I suffer from COPD. In my language this means Compulsive Obsessive Programming Disorder.

    This has a consequence in that the IT field self selects for people that enjoy exercising power. And inevitably they will tend to extend that to more than just control over the machine.

    But I have spent too much time commenting and will eagerly return to my great love, writing programs. No, I am not joking. My wife despairs of me 🙂

  44. […] At The Electric Agora. […]

  45. Bharath Vallabha

    Hi Zac, The fantasies on both sides doesn’t mean each side isn’t making important points. Of course, climate change is real. The two fantasies idea doesn’t undermine that. Conversely, here is a point which right now the right is better expressing: it’s not obvious what it means for news to be neutral. Both sides on different issues have good points to make. The point of the two fantasies is that we are unable to appreciate the good points on the other side because people are repressing the other side, instead of engaging with them.

    I am also not saying the underground man anxiety is the main anxiety. I myself think it is, but I didn’t show or prove that in this post. Here what I wanted to do was to say: “Hey, look, here is this other anxiety, which isn’t about race or jobs, since anyone just as a person can feel it.” This doesn’t mean everything boils down to this anxiety. But perhaps it is something that people from different camps can share, and so find a commonality.

    We need to find such commonalities if we are going to respond to climate change. Simply having scientific proof of climate change isn’t going to make people take it seriously, especially if – as per the underground man anxiety – it is science and reason itself which they find anxiety provoking. I will mention again the cancer analogy. If a patient right now is scared to hell of chemotherapy, and as a way of avoiding it denies he has cancer, showing him more and more scans and official scientific looking data isn’t necessarily going to help. That is needed, but also a humane doctoring approach which addressing the fear of chemotheraphy is needed. Or to suggest an alternative healing method. Something other than just more scientific data.

  46. Bharath Vallabha

    Yes, exactly.

    A peasant’s relation to the aristocracy was mediated through religion. As you say, the people higher up in society were seen as better realizing the virtues of the religion. This came with a sense of great power and abuse, but also – because of the common bond – a sense that the higher ups are responsible for the people on the bottom. Even when this responsibility was not met, there was that sense of responsibility which one could hold onto. Things might be hopeless with this or that king, but a new or better king who fulfills the responsibility might come.

    Now that is not there. What responsibility does Bezos have to me? Or Zuckerberg? If anything, they seem to go out of their way to highlight that socially they are just like me, wearing hoodies, etc.. They are seen to have three very contingent things: intelligence, luck and money. But in the way of a narrative of human connection, we have….nothing. The two options for such a connection are science and ethics. Science can’t play that role: not what it is meant for, and in any case, most people see science as not their own. And ethics – in the modern sense of rules – is too abstract to connect us as human beings. Even morality in the ancient sense couldn’t by itself play that role without the narrative structure of wisdom traditions.

    This is why the underground man will gravitate to the strong man leader. Such a leader, even if he fails or seems to not fulfill his promises, has the right form of a leader that most people are used to. The kingless, democratic state, when it is merged with a technological world of 2+2=4, is extremely anxiety provoking for many people. Telling them to overcome their silliness is as dumb as telling a rape victim to get over her anxiety. Healing requires a different approach.

    What is needed – and what Dostoevsky came to with Aloysha in the Brothers Karamasov – is to bring spirituality to bear to our current world. But that is another post.

  47. Bharath Vallabha

    That’s interesting. Though I am not saying there is some intrinsic connection between liking programming and power. Even if programmers were kind hearted people who eschew power – like some programmers I know – we all need to think about the large scale effects of a world in which a majority of people are using computers and phones but with a basically pre-modern psychological framework.

  48. labnut,
    ok, I see the source of the misunderstanding.
    “I used the House of Representatives results since the entire body was reelected, unlike the Senate, reasoning that this would make it a better indicator of attitudes towards Republican and Democratic parties and thus more truly reflect conservative and liberal sentiment.” No, actually, this is not the case, because it is in the House where gerrymandering has had a devastating effect. States where the party vote is split fairly evenly wind up with two thirds – or more – of their representatives Republican (why I’m not hopeful for a blue wave today).

    Despite all the railings against ‘pork’ from both parties, people generally vote for the House Representative in the hopes of getting pork, since the House allots funds to the various districts. It is the Senate where people express their will concerning national and foreign policy; but the rule of inertia – favoring incumbents – has great influence there.

    I agree about the problem of kleptocracy, and it may be the case that party affiliation may no longer make a difference in light of it. However, the electorla process is what we have to try to change things, barring civil war or revolution. And if we are simply fated to kleptocracy and mere illusion of democracy, there’s not much to be done politically.

    That may be the case; but I try not to think of it… well, actually I think about it quite a lot, but I try to remain active, hoping for something better than we have now. I don’t know what else a reasonable person can do.

  49. The problem with Kleptocracy in the present moment is multifold, and globalism is the effect of these, not the cause.

    First, greed as motivation is deeply embedded in all capitalistic processes. Rational self interest cannot constrain it, no ‘market forces’ can limit it, and while there are some religious arguments against it, there are other religious arguments that gloss or support it. In short it In short it is intrinsic to capitalism at every loevel or stage of historical development.

    Second of all, a fundamental result of capitalism is the wide gap in the distribution of wealth, with the more successful receiving ever larger percentage of wealth while the wealth of the many wavering but ultimately declining as the successful demand more and more of available and produced wealth.

    The only means of restraining the excesses of greed and the one sided distribution of wealth to the wealthy is government intervention. However, the strongest means of accomplishing this, socialism, has been abandoned in the West; and the problem with socialism is that its success depends on the good will and service of government officials and agents, and thus is open to corruption. However abandoning it completely leaves us with no structural alternative outside of legal regulations strictly enforced. However, this also demands good will and public service, so this also is open to corruption. And that’s where many countries in the West find themselves today, with government corrupted by the wealthy, and no will to develop a workable socialism, nor to enforce regulation.

    Perhaps the best we can do for now is vote in earnest reformers; and then, when they grow corrupt, vote them out again.

    The problem is when we have radicals offering permanent solution to these problems by devastating the very institutions of government that can intervene in the problems – in much of the West, this radicalism almost always comes from the right, exactly because the right largely eschews theory and rational argument. Exactly because of that, it not only has no argument concerning the central problem – greed – but in fact bolsters it and aids in the upward distribution of wealth.

    Possibly one solution is the indoctrination of democratic values and virtues, so that when we have a moment when we can institutionalize real reform, we will have a generation committed to good will and public service.

    However, we’re not very good at indoctrination in the West – at least, not among those committed to liberal values (liberal in the generic historical sense, which also includes certain forms of conservativism). Unfortunately, those on the right are very good at indoctrination, and now have major media with which to engage such indoctrination well beyond class rooms or political clubs. We will have to find some way to break through such indoctrination if we are to return to public discourse of reasonable disagreement concerning shared values.

  50. Zac

    I don’t see the need to use scientific evidence alone in persuading people, but on issues like climate change, there’s no serious way to talk about it without bringing people to the science at some point. That said, addressing climate change denial has to reach people on various rhetorical levels, and if someone is coming at it with anti-science sentiments, then that’ll have to involve addressing those underlying assumptions.

    Of course, most climate change denial isn’t strictly anti-science and in fact purports to forward itself as legitimate science, either superior to the consensus, or just an equal party in a debate where both sides supposedly have something important to contribute. But I don’t think we’re required to join them in the latter opinion to engage in a genuine argument on any of these points. If we honestly feel there’s considerable ambiguity on an issue, then by all means, but if we don’t, and I don’t think we should here, then we’re just feigning moderation.

    Should we grant, to take your example, that the Right gets kudos for denigrating the media? I wouldn’t think so. That, indeed, is one of the more regressive trends in our current politics today, and we’ve ended up with, as studies have shown, a left with a much more varied diet, including servings of centrist sources, and a right that’s tightly clustered around a couple of highly politicized streams that have set their goal around hacking the national conversation. And they and the political class have done a smashing job. It’s why during the election, across the WHOLE media spectrum, Clinton’s emails got more coverage than all policy issues combined (not made up). Decrying all media as biased, as a biased media source, is a very convenient way to try to level the playing the field. But Breitbart isn’t on the level with the NYT (hint: WSJ is the natural analogy). This is a dynamic that any attempt to referee political dialogue needs to take really seriously. Learning about the relativity of perspectives should be freshmen year. Sophomore should be learning how to suss out better from worse.

    It’s an easy totalizing picture to say we’ve all got a useful perspective somehow, but its lack of content becomes an issue when we get into the messy business of actually hashing out differences. And in doing so, the point shouldn’t be to reflexively cede meta-credence to whatever position or ideology they hold. We don’t have to flatter any assumption that that’s where their dignity lies. Their dignity should lie in their being human, which practically would mean addressing them as someone deserving of a basic level of respect, as someone responsive to reasons, capable of considering new views and weighing different intuitions. If you think there’s any chance of making headway with someone (if they aren’t, say, a full-bore ideologue or opportunist), then that’s the level on which you should approach them.

    The “sides” talk just falls into the same, polarizing conversations that have left us chasing our tails. Hey, I’m a side and you’re a side. I’m the side that thinks that sides talk should be heavily qualified. We can cut up sides right, left, up and down, topsy turvy, and a middle can be found where ever we like, leaving us with an unintelligible sphere the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.

    …he said, midtermsly

  51. I actually think everything you’ve said actually reinforces the “sides” view of things, rather than undermining it.

  52. Zac

    “I actually think everything you’ve said actually reinforces the “sides” view of things, rather than undermining it.”

    Well, like I said, my side is the side that thinks the sides talk needs to be heavily qualified, that an abstract “both sides throwing fantasies at each other” is of limited use. By extension, the latter claim falls into its own side throwing its own fantasy at everyone else. Que sirrah! We’re all sides. And as I’ve argued, we’re capable of holding confidently to our side while engaging with others. At times, I think we’re even obligated to. The Underground Man insists that 2+2=5. That’s a side, but engaging him I don’t see the need to act like I think this stance is on the level. I’m not going to treat him as a sum of his stances. Again, people defining themselves as such is probably part of the problem. I’m going to try to weed out the underlying assumptions and motivations. I’m going to address it on the human level of person-to-person conversation rather than trying to paint some flattering overarching picture of competing philosophies.

  53. That’s a side, but engaging him I don’t see the need to act like I think this stance is on the level.
    = = =
    You do if he’s cleaning your clock in elections.

  54. s. wallerstein

    Politics is about sides. People have differing interests and values, and hence, they take different sides.

    I don’t have the same values about abortion as an evangelical Christian and we’re on different sides in that debate. I don’t have the same interests as the executives and big shareholders of drug companies do regarding regulating drug prices and we’re on different sides in that debate too.

    At election time each side will try to seduce the swing voter, the uncommitted voter, the previously non-political non-voter, the young who have not yet developed clear values or a sense of their interests, the people who have, for one reason or another, lost faith in their side (the people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump), but I’m never going to convince the committed voter from the other side nor will they convince me.

    Politics is not a philosophical debate. While someone may convince me about a complex philosophical issue where there may be arguments which I have never considered, let’s say consequentialism vs. virtue ethics for example, the issues in politics are fairly simple as are the arguments for and against any issue, so any person involved in politics who studies the issues is unlikely to change sides.

  55. Zac

    “You do if he’s cleaning your clock in elections.”

    Would you have said that in 1930s Germany? If you still believed in democracy at that point and you weren’t on the right, you’d want the Social Democrats and the Communists to form a coalition, not to noodle over how we should throw the Jewish population to the German Underground Men.

    Elections have followed incredibly close for decades now. One of proposed influences on polarization involves the fact that in the last 40 years power has shifted back and forth more than any other time in the last century, exacerbating parties’ desire to over-inflate their differences.

    I don’t anticipate that failure to be honest about our disagreements with people will endear us to anyone. The opposition, because it’s obviously caving. Independents, because we’re not making a confident case. And people in our own camp, because we’re not giving anything to believe in.

  56. Yes, I would have said we need to win elections.

  57. Bharath Vallabha


    Glad you are pressing your point; it’s important. I am not doing a creationism and evolution are both equally right kind of thing. What I am doing is like if a couple of fighting and each gives evidence for how the other side is the problem, one might say: “Can’t you see both of you are hurt by what the other is doing? Evidence is important, but so is building trust.”

    I am not saying science shouldn’t be brought in climate change discussion; of course it should. What I am saying is: more than to the science, climate change deniers are responding to “the scientific class” as they see it. If so, then what is needed is to build trust not in science in an abstract way, but in scientists. This is a more complex and amorphous thing than teaching science. It results from combining together, say, atheism, robots taking over jobs, illegal immigration, climate change and transgender activism – as if they all stand or fall together. The climate change denial is mediated through a sense that “they – the elites who want to educate me are talking down to me.”

    Where you and I differ is in how to respond to this feeling. You seem to think, “There is truth, and one just has to speak the truth, and they better get used to it.” I say that is horrible pedagogy. Majority of the world’s population are used to menial physical labor – either farming or factory work. Like you, I think I know better than them. But with that I think I have a responsibility to help them transition to a more modern mindset. You seem to me to be avoiding or denying that responsibility, and want them to just “be better”. It goes the other way too: religious conservatives think they are better, but also just vent about the other side. Can’t have it both ways. If you are better than the other side, then you have responsibilities just because of being better that the other side doesn’t have.

    Re media, I don’t think any group should be denigrated. But I do think there is a big question what it means for news to be neutral and whether that is possible; if so, how, and if not, what that means in a democracy. Again, this is not a point against science. A lot of news is tied up with our values and narrative, hence why news channels have all the pontificators. Chomsky was raising the same points about the media long before Trump, so clearly its not a right/left thing. I think its disingenious of the left to be shocked when Trump puts down the NYT, but fawning when Chomsky does the same thing.

  58. Bharath Vallabha

    What helps me with my inner underground man:

  59. So, somebody has to tag the mid-terms: In a historically large-turn-out mid-term, the Democrats took the House, lost two seats in the senate. The Democrat-to- Republican vote ratio was roughly 5 to 4 for both House and Senate races.

    McConnell and Trump both declared victory – McConnell because he knows his Dems, he knows Pelosi, thinks he has nothing to worry about.

    Let’s let him have that, given the Democratic Party’s lack of any real leadership. Still the most McConnell can hope for is a dead-locked Congress. However, McConnell played the dead-lock game quite well for nearly the full 8 years of the Obama administration, so I’m not sure that would disappoint him.

    As for Trump, he’s happy that the base he’s always playing to is still faving him. But this morning, his first order of business was to fire Attorney General Sessions, so he could appoint an acting AG who has voiced disapproval of the Mueller investigations – It’s all about Trump all the time.

    The big question for the Democrats is: how to hold Trump to account? and how to develop and set an agenda they can take to the 2020 campaign? The answers to these questions are yet unclear.

    The really good news is that the mid-term map may signal Trump’s failure in the 2020 electoral college. Also voters in some states voted referenda to limit gerrymandering and voter-suppression.

    The demographics also indicate a couple things – First, the Democratic hope that they can cash in a big Latino vote is not yet realizable. Second, perhaps more interestingly, the rural Trumpists – the paradigmatic Underground Men here – are, if not shrinking in number, possibly drifting off from their suburban allies.

    It should be remembered that most of Trump’s supposed ‘accomplishments’ have come about through executive order – not necessarily illegal or illegitimate, but highly questionable (and authoritarian) in the context of a democratic republic. Except for the tax cuts for the rich, Trump has achieved nothing of lasting value (except damage to long-time alliances and international trust). Perhaps the mid-term indicates that even some his Republicans (not his fan-base, but rank and file who have supported him simply because he’s Party standard-bearer) may be beginning to wake up to the fact that this guy is doing damage without positive counter-balance; that behind all the bluster, his administration is inefficient, even in accomplishing its own stated goals.

  60. The really good news is that the mid-term map may signal Trump’s failure in the 2020 electoral college.
    This is what I am hoping for. That the Democrats have a broader map and aren’t all clustered in three major metro areas, which electorally is useless.

  61. Zac

    Hi again, Bharath

    My position isn’t that there’s a truth and that they just have to get used to it. The partisan divide is far too complicated for that. Likewise, though, I think it’s too complicated to characterize as just two sides plying each other with fantasies. Climate change was merely a frustrating example to the latter picture because, unless you already buy the argument that the science isn’t in (and you don’t fall in that camp), we’re not really talking about fantasies here, but facts. Yes, I think we all do have SOME measure of responsibility in trying to get at these facts.

    But does the fact that we’re talking about facts mean that we should simply bludgeon them, as you claim I’ve advocated? No. I didn’t advocate that. We can very well be right in what we argue and wrong in how we argue it. Which is why I said we should approach people with respect. You can be confident in the truth of something, passionate about it, and argue for it, and not belligerently demand that they submit to your facts. I’ve done it with people far beyond the pale of whatever partisan divide we’re talking about now.

    To say that we’re just two sides each with something good to contribute in any given case is itself a claim dependent on truth conditions and evaluative judgments (and at best is only true in certain ways and on certain matters). It’s not outside of the arguments, some sideless side, but directly a part of them, and as I’m entitled to, I put pressure on it as a reliable, accurate guide. Like when you applied this to the case of immigration as a divide between moralizing Democrats and prudential Republicans, you hadn’t sidestepped the partisan discussion so much as waded directly into it. Are Republicans not making passionate moral claims? Are the Democrats simply moralizing when they forward prudential arguments shared by folks in the libertarian wing? Which also leads one to ask, should we simply be talking about two sides here rather than a variety of overlapping groups with various priorities and arguments? The framing of this as two sides with something to contribute can easily miss these very necessary nuances.

    Even speaking as someone who takes Chomsky with a grain of salt these days, there’s a huge gulf between Chomsky and Trump, between someone actually trying to build an empirical argument and someone who’s simply lying, throwing up dust and trying to reduce trust in institutions that can undermine him. We can argue with Chomsky’s case; we should be fundamentally opposed to what Trump is doing. To say they’re saying the same thing would be to reduce their arguments to the most general of generalities. Do we want to have constructive and interesting conversations about objectivity in the media, about how interests affect coverage, etc.? Sounds cool. Have a blast. But be sure that conversation includes some discussion of how people cynically exploit an aimless and deleterious distrust of media in order to buoy themselves up. Hopefully you talk about the basic distinctions between, say, the news section the WSJ on the one hand and Gateway Pundit on the other. Hopefully it talks about parties can weaponize “both sides” rhetoric by ratcheting up their own record, decrying media bias, and shaming more traditional news outlets to tack closer to their partisan agenda. These are all very real parts of our environment.

    But I’ll leave that as my closer and leave you be now.

  62. Bunsen Burner

    “Perhaps the mid-term indicates that even some his Republicans…”

    What are you suggesting? That the evangelicals for who he got two conservative Supreme Court judges will suddenly decide to vote Democrat? The ideological landscape of the US will stay as divided and partisan for a long time to come, with or without Trump. I’m not convinced Trump wants a second term. Certainly his family isn’t enthusiastic. But the election will still involve a Republican candidate making the same noises on taxation, immigration, defense, guns, and all the rest. Without a sensible response to this I can’t see the Dems as having anything to offer the typical voter.

  63. Bharath Vallabha

    My sense is things are going to get much worse for democrats for another couple of election cycles. They took the House, which is good. But I think they are lagging behind in having a vision, and Trump – even with all his obvious flaws – has something I don’t see any democrat right now challenging: he is critiquing the government, media and academia in the same way minorities have been critiquing it for a long time, and so he has taken the liberals’ mojo.

    Trump is riding a wave where the former majority are becoming a minority, and so they have the advantages of both. The coalition Trump represents is used to having cultural and government power; they see America as fundamentally a cultural entity which reflects their values, and so they have a lot of cultural power in terms of implicit habits, etc. So when Trump channels those habits unapologetically, it resonates deeply and with power. But, at the same time, America has changed a lot in the last 50 years, and liberals have a lot of power in media and academia and tech, and America is also becoming majority minority. So there is a very real sense in which Trump is speaking like a minority, aggrieved that their viewpoint is given second-class status. Everything he is saying about the deep state is basically what Malcom X and Chomsky and Howard Zinn have been saying for years. Only he has flipped it around on the liberals, and so defanged their bite. Liberals are suddenly having to argue as the status quo, and they don’t have a game plan for that. Liberals are used to only shouting about how they are oppressed, but suddenly they can’t do that when the humanities are driven by class and race issues, when Obama was president, and when people like the Google CEO (an Indian American) makes 200 million a year. As long as that CEO is able to make kind of money and have influence, the Nazi comparisons ring hollow.

    The coalition Trump represents is old conservative power structures with the very real and imminent sense of them being minorities in the new cultural framework that developed in the last 30 years, and in which demographically they will become a minority.

    As a liberal, I feel two things which I need to get over. First, just when I felt we were getting to the top with Obama and beginning of majority minority, it feels like the game has changed, and we are back to losing. That stings. Second, losing to Trump on top of it stings more. It would be one thing to lose to a Reagan or a Churchill, who exuded importance of virtue and honor, no matter what else one thinks of their political views. Trump makes me feel like a white guy can behave horribly and it will be overlooked; that is in fact a main part of his appeal, that he can get away with it is seen as part of his power. My sense is, most liberals and especially democratic politicians are unable to get over these two things. But they need to. A new generation of liberals who are beyond these two anxieties need to rise. In that spirit, I hope Nancy Pelosi doesn’t become the house speaker.

  64. Bunsen,
    It is getting clear that 2020 will be won in the suburbs. American suburbs are largely Republican leaning; but there is a kind of Republican who will vote R automatically, unless there is something just wrong about an R politician, or a D politicians offers something worth crossing Party lines for. I had an aunt like that; the only time she voted D was in ’76, as rebuke against Ford’s pardon of Nixon.

    These are the people who voted twice for Obama, then for Trump. We’ll never win them permanently to the Democratic Party; but they can be appealed to and won in a given election.

    ” The ideological landscape of the US will stay as divided and partisan for a long time to come, with or without Trump.” … “Without a sensible response to this I can’t see the Dems as having anything to offer the typical voter.” Agreed there; but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have D candidates capable of making such a sensible response.

  65. Bharath Vallabha

    Don’t think we really disagree. You seem to find my phrasing of the two fantasies unhelpful, and maybe even wrong. And certainly there are many more than two sides. I am on board all that. But the point of two fantasies was meant to highlight something very specific: that people are repressing certain facts they don’t want to face up to. With Trump supporters, this is obvious with climate change, but also about how Trump acts and how that is not virtuous or honorable in any obvious sense. With anti-Trump people, some of whom are just focused on all that is wrong with Trump, they are repressing I think broader issues of where we are going as a society and which Trump isn’t controlling: especially, the future of technology and the forms of dehumanization that creates. Anti-Trump people who are focused only on race or gender are acting as if without Trump all will be fine, and headed towards the ideal society represented by Obama. That strikes me as a fantasy, repressing more plausible dsytopian possibilities.

    I didn’t say Chomsky and Trump are saying the same thing, or in the same way. They are saying similar things, at least on a first blush hearing of them about NYT or CNN, etc. I agree Chomsky gives arguments, whereas Trump doesn’t. But even that is interesting. They give different kinds of arguments. Chomsky is more like a logic argument, whereas Trump is giving the kind of argument one gives in family disputes, more emotional and wounded. I wouldn’t say that Trump isn’t giving reasons or is just irrational (not that you said that, but just saying). The main difference is that appreciating Chomsky requires feeling comfortable with academia, which provides the space from which one can critique the media. Trump is doing it from a different space. There are, as you say, many cross cutting issues and perspectives, and a sharp for-Trump vs anti-Trump misses all of this. I think you and I are agreed on that.

  66. s. wallerstein


    You’re lumping together forces and people on the left who have little in common. Chomsky is not a liberal (in the sense that the word is used in U.S. politics): he’s a libertarian socialist. In fact, the so-called liberal media do not give him space: he does not appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post or CNN. Chomsky does not believe, as some liberals seem to, that the solution to inequality in the U.S. is including more minorities among the Silicon Valley executives. Chomsky is in favor of workers’ control of the economy, as far as I know. I agree that Chomsky’s voice does not reach the U.S. white working class, but he is far from the favorite of the liberal elites either. Chomsky is a genuine radical and let’s give him credit for that, for his cojones, for his standing up to power.

  67. Bunsen Burner

    I can assure that Reagan had a very similar response as Trump. There was the liberal hysteria. I know people who decided they would not have children as Reagan was certain to start WW3. Also checkthe satire of the time and how Reagan was presented as moronic simpleton every bit as Trump.

  68. Bunsen Burner

    Sure, its not impossible. I am just not seeing much from the Dems in rising up to the challenge.

  69. Bharath,
    As a liberal, I feel two things which I need to get over. First, just when I felt we were getting to the top with Obama and beginning of majority minority, it feels like the game has changed, and we are back to losing. That stings.

    It is real simple. Democracy means that some of the people must lose some of the time. If the losers cannot accept this basic fact and resolve to work with the winners, democracy will break down. Likewise the winners must resolve to work with the losers in a spirit of generous cooperation.

    None of the two major groupings are entitled to permanent rule over the other grouping. That can only result in injustice. The best outcome is a society where the electoral pendulum regularly swings from side to side, as we have just seen happen now. This means that in the longer term society reaches a working consensus that represents a pragmatic reconciliation of the needs/interests/desires of the major sectors of society.

    What poisons society is the fanatical insistence by one side that it alone possess justice, right, truth and good while the other side is retrograde and bad. That is never true. This same fanatical insistence that they alone are entitled to rule is an insane delusion.

    Society is made of of groups with competing interests and desires. Democracy is our best means of reconciling these interests in a way that most people can accept. But the permanent imposition of one group’s will on another is not democracy but tyranny. We should never desire that to happen. We should instead welcome regular changes of government between liberals and conservatives as evidence of a healthy democracy.

  70. Bharath Vallabha

    Not denying liberal hysteria in the 80s. But there is a marked difference between Reagan and Trump in their demeanor. However Nixon or Reagan or Clinton acted in private, they didn’t do that in public. Not so with Trump. Reagan didn’t make fun of disabilities, reference his penis in a debate, talk about JFK conspiracy theories to put down his opponent, etc. In terms of policy, Reagan wasn’t dismantling the post WWII framework. Reagan conveyed optimism that it would uplift all, as long as we didn’t overthrow it from the left. Trump thinks that framework helped minorities in America and the Chinese in the world more than it helped his voters. This is a genuine debate, but not clear Trump wants a debate.

  71. Bharath Vallabha

    Agreed. Didn’t mean to suggest Chomsky was like Clinton or Obama. Was speaking more to the fact that many democrats I know glorify Chomsky’s ideas on the media, but are horrified when Trump says things which are in the same ballpark. I see it as tribalism: it’s ok if our guy says it, but not if their guy says it. Same applies to Trump supporters. They wouldn’t be caught dead saying Chomsky has interesting ideas about the media.

  72. Bharath Vallabha

    Agreed. But just to press what I said stings. I very much underestimated the extent to which some Americans would rather do away with liberal democracy than allow America to become more diverse. I assumed, falsely, that liberal democracy was unshakable in America, and that this was something all Americans felt committed to. Perhaps it was an immigrant’s fantasy. That India or Turkey or Russia might not be able to distinguish liberal from illiberal democracy, I could imagine that pre-2016, but I think I had a more mythic sense of America in relation to liberal democracy. I don’t anymore. Not blaming Trump for this; I see him as a sympton than as a cause.

    Doesn’t mean I don’t have trust in liberal democracy in America. I absolutely do. Only now I take responsibility for it, whereas before I supposed it was just an unshakable fabric of America, and that I could take it for granted. A lot of the liberal protests take this unshakableness for granted, even as they fear fascism. If they simply turned it around and took responsibility for liberal democracy, that can reorient everything and give them more a sense of control. This is in line with what you are saying.

  73. Bharath,
    But just to press what I said stings.

    Yes, we make considerable emotional investment in our partisan allegiances. But there must come a time when we divest the issue of our emotional commitments so that we can take a dispassionate view. Because that is the moment we become open to truth.

    some Americans would rather do away with liberal democracy than allow America to become more diverse.

    Laissez-faire immigration is not the same thing as liberal democracy. There is a big temptation to define liberal democracy as that which aligns with our policy prescriptions. It is an attempt to seize the semantic high ground but it debases our discourse.

  74. Bharath Vallabha

    Instead of only talking about what is bad about Trump, let me highlight one thing which I admire (there are other things as well): the sheer stamina it takes to do what he is doing. A few years ago I had a post in an old blog where I called out some people in academic phil (later on I realized the criticisms of my post were valid). I got a lot of comments and responses. For three days I didn’t eat properly and became dehydrated, and at the end decided I need a break. I shut down the comments. Anyone who has felt overwhelmed by online discussion knows the feeling, I think. So that Trump has been going at this for more than 3 years now is kind of amazing. Not magical, since he has lived his whole life for this kind of exposure, and had practice with the tabloids in NY. But it takes some kind of guts and strength to keep going as he has. I suspect this is one reason his supporters love him: he hasn’t backed down. Like calling out the iraq war as bad in a republican debate.

    This is not physical stamina, or mental stamina. It is a new kind of stamina, which we might call internet stamina. It is amazing that a 70 year old guy has fit in so well with the internet world, and in this sense he is ahead of the game. And he is bringing that internal kind of energy to physical interactions – to me, that’s why he seems new, exciting, different from others. He comes across like he lives primarily in this digital world of TV and internet, and is coming down to the mere physical world among us mortals. It is not enough to have ideas or protests. Countering Trump requires challenging this kind of new energy. A new internet energy which isn’t that of a internet bully, but something more uplifting.

  75. Bharath Vallabha

    Am not defending open immigration. I don’t like wall, but I am open to limiting immigration, and even limiting refugees. Am not defending any particular policy. What I mean by threatening liberal democracy is what Trump was doing from before the election, which is claiming the system is corrupt IF he loses; which goes with the idea that only one side is really the “true” Americans.