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Don’t Push Ordinary People Over the Edge

Liberals and progressives need to do a better job of persuading those who might vote for nativists.

de Young Museum San Francisco California
Visitors of de Young museum in San Francisco, California, October 16, 2005 (Thomas Hawk)

Regular readers of this site will be familiar with what Andrew Sullivan has called the West’s ; I agree that the political conflict in Europe and North America is now between “blue” cosmopolitans and internationalists, who tend to be liberal, well-educated and mobile, and “red” nationalists and nativists, who are often socially conservative, less educated and stuck in one place.

I’m decidedly “blue” and so Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last month and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States hasn’t filled me with hope.

Long term, I know the “reds” are fighting yesterday’s battles — and I suspect they know it too. But in the short term, red victories can do a lot of damage.

What’s to be done?


I think those of us on the blue side must do a better job at persuading our center-red compatriots.

There are shades of “red”. There is probably no point in arguing with Americans who believe their president is secretly a Muslim and sympathizes with terrorists. But there are plenty of people who have their doubts about liberals and progressives, who worry about globalization and immigration, who are struggling to keep up with changing social norms, but who aren’t bigoted or hateful.

They are not our enemy. They are our neighbors and our family and they have real concerns.

Status-quo conservatives

Jonathan Haidt recently argued in The American Interest that nativists who are prone to authoritarianism — the reddest of the red; the people who support Trump, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders — only succeed when they are joined by what he calls “status-quo conservatives”.

Status-quo conservatives aren’t natural allies of the far right, writes Haidt. Their defining characteristic, after all, is a skepticism of radical change and untested leadership.

This is why so many Republicans — and nearly all conservative intellectuals — oppose Donald Trump; he is simply not a conservative by the test of temperament or values.

But status-quo conservatives can be drawn into an alliance with authoritarians when they believe cosmopolitans or globalists or progressives are subverting the nation’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political action — like withdrawing Britain from the European Union or banning all Muslim immigration to the United States — is the only way to stop them anymore.

Tipping point

Clearly many status-quo conservatives in America have reached that tipping point, although I suspect a substantial part of Donald Trump’s support comes from regular Republicans who wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton but may just sit this election out (or vote for Gary Johnson) if he doesn’t stop sounding like a crypto-fascist.

Europe isn’t there yet, but the refugee crisis and recent spate of terrorist attacks by Muslims could push people over the edge.

The Pew Research Center has found that majorities in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom fear that the record influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa this year and last has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks in their countries.

In the poorer states of Eastern and Southern Europe, majorities also worry that the refugees will take away their jobs and social security.

It’s probably no coincidence that the countries with the smallest Muslim populations have the most negative views of Muslims.

But Pew found significant left-right gaps in attitudes in wealthier and ethnically more diverse Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom as well.

In the first two, only 17 percent of leftwingers have an unfavorable view of Muslims against 47 and 42 percent of conservatives, respectively.

The figures are 18 and 33 percent for Britain.

The gap in France and Sweden is smaller, but that’s mostly because unfavorable views of Muslims are more common on the left there as well.

I think these attitudes can be taken as a proxy for the broader “red” worldview. Westerners with negative views of Muslims are likely to be wary of economic change; less socially liberal and more sympathetic to foreign nationalists like Vladimir Putin.

The fact that there is a such a left-right divide, and the fact that right-wing attitudes have become more negative in recent years, shows that people’s views are changeable.

We need to change them back.


You don’t do that berating people for holding what you believe are backward opinions.

As I argued here last month, the one thing liberals must learn from Donald Trump’s candidacy is humility. If he is a response to changing gender norms, to a more fluid definition of what it means to be an “American” and to evolving race relations, then those making and supporting such changes must have more patience with others who are struggling to keep up.

You don’t convince people to be more relaxed about female power or gay rights by ridiculing old-fashioned gender roles, for example.

Nor do you defeat jingoists by mocking people’s patriotism or open their eyes to racial injustice by shaming their whiteness.

All that will accomplish is a backlash.

In America, that backlash has taken the form of Trump. In Britain, it took the form of the referendum against the EU. In France, there is Marine Le Pen. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders.

No taboos

The best way to help nativist leaders is to dismiss all their followers as racist.

I argued here in January, after immigrants were accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, that German politicians risked a backlash against refugees if they would trivialize the attacks and worry more about the backlash than the victims.

The German authorities could have handled the aftermath of the Cologne attacks better, but they have since taken steps to cope with the issue.

Angela Merkel, the center-right chancellor, has quietly backtracked from last year’s everyone-is-welcome gestures and put a lid on the refugee flow (even if that meant doing an unsavory deal with the Turks).

Some cities have put together special police groups to investigate crimes committed by immigrants. Others have clamped down on relatively minor offenses when a stern warning — usually enough to correct a native German — didn’t deter foreign troublemakers.

Similarly, in Sweden — long the most welcoming nation in Europe to immigration — the left-wing government recognizes that it has been too permissive in the past. It has been slow to actually change policy, but at least the Swedes are talking about integration when it was taboo to mention problems in the past.

That is key, as Mathew Casey, a political risk consultant from Denmark, told me for a report I wrote for Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, about this issue. By shutting down the debate about integration, Sweden’s political elite denied native voters a way to express their discontent, he said. In the end, that only fueled the popularity of the hard-right Sweden Democrats.

Voters first need to feel they’re being taken seriously. Then we need to admit that sometimes they have legitimate grievances.

Legitimate grievances

In the United States, low-skilled work pays less than it used to and the costs of entering the middle class have gone up. A middle-class lifestyle is now out of reach for many ordinary Americans and you can’t blame people for being frustrated about that.

In Europe, immigration has uprooted working-class neighborhoods and possibly been too high in the last few years to allow for the sort of gradual integration that happened in the past.

Maybe that’s not directly what motivates a Le Pen or a Trump or a Wilders supporter. Their appeal is more emotional; about a sense of something having been taken away that could previously be taken for granted. But I do think these are the underlying causes of the blue-red divide we see.

Our footloose economy works great for highly-educated, English-speaking Westerners who don’t mind moving to another country for a couple of years for a job or who have the entrepreneurial spirit to freelance or start their own company. It’s not so easy if you’re a factory worker or a truck driver with a family to support and your job could be moved to Mexico any time or given to an Eastern European immigrant.

Similarly, changing gender, racial and sexual norms are welcome if you’re a woman, a person of color or gay. But it can probably feel a bit much if you’re middle-aged white man who’s not sure what’s the appropriate way to talk and behave anymore. Things have moved very quickly and liberal zealots shouting down every microaggression and misconception aren’t making it any easier to adjust.

If you count yourself among the blues and want to help, then take the time and make an effort to reach out to those who are anxious. Listen, ask questions and explain how you look at these issues. The worst thing we can do is demonize each other and make the blue-red divide permanent.