In last month’s post (on this same topic) I noted that many of the emotions of envy and fear and hatred displayed by modern conservatives are common human reactions to situations which seem unfair. I noted that I had experienced similar feelings, but also that one difference between people on the left (including me) and people on the the right is that leftists tend to direct such responses at people who have undeserved privileges, and modern conservatives direct them at people who have undeserved difficulties, for example, minorities and people in poverty. In either case, we tend to assume that our chosen “other” group, defined variously by wealth or race or religion or national origin, constitutes a threat to our lives and/or livelihoods, and this inspires both resentment and fear.
There is another significant factor, however. This is most obvious among alt-right adherents, although it is also true of many other less-radical conservatives. These people don’t allow their resentment and fear to dissipate. They seem to revel in it, to constantly maintain it and even reinforce it with dedicated propaganda sources that give them more and more reasons to be afraid. They create, search out, and share internet memes that demonize minorities and exaggerate conspiracy theories and repeat slippery-slope arguments about affirmative action and welfare and foreign aid and liberals and unions and socialists/communists and sharia law. They limit their media coverage to Fox News and conservative talk shows that repeat the threats that “others”, whether political or minority or foreign, are trying to take over the United States or subvert “our” culture. In short, they act as if they do not want to let go of their fear. Fear, and thus hatred, becomes an integral part of their daily personal reality.
I have often said that the base emotion behind bigotry—hatred of “the other”—is fear. That concept has been questioned both by bigots and by those who oppose bigotry. Many bigots clearly want to believe that they are motivated by logic, not by emotions, especially not by emotions as irrational (and perhaps unmasculine) as fear. Never mind—they are fearful, and that inspires their hate. Many people who are against bigotry don’t want to admit that their opponents are motivated by something as common and human as fear. Never mind—they are wrong, too. One problem is that hate is evil, but fear inspires pity, and neither bigots nor anti-bigots want to feel pity toward those who express prejudice. However, the most common methods used by white supremacists to fire up their members have always involved stories about minorities taking their jobs, about violence perpetrated by black and Hispanic men, about other religions displacing their beliefs and legal systems. In recent demonstrations one of the chants used by the alt-right was “You will not replace us”, which frequently morphed into “Jews will not replace us.” This is a sign of paranoia and fear-mongering as obvious as candidate Donald Trump’s declaration that “They’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” Conservatives in general have been animatedly repeating the story of a San Francisco woman who was killed by “an illegal immigrant” as well as anti-Muslim anecdotes about rape and oppression of women or “jihadi” terror or “sharia law.” And it’s not just Mexicans and Muslims; there is also continuing paranoia about such manufactured threats as the gay agenda and the war on Christmas. These are all blatant invocations of fears that underlie hatred.
There are people on the left who are caught in the same vicious cycle. There are groups of anarchists whose major focus seems to be the destruction of symbols and activities of the capitalistic/oligarchic system. There are proponents of the left, including some members of the Green Party and various fringe groups, who reject all the major “corporate” media and political parties and who continually reinforce their positions through selective media sources and acquaintances who remain on topic, reminding them of the imminent threats represented by oligarchic and corporate/monopolistic control. And this is nothing new. The leftist factions of the 19th century, anarchists and bolsheviks and others, had their own meeting venues and conferences and produced and distributed their own newspapers. They demonized robber barons and fat cats in diatribes similar to those used today against the Koch brothers. The right, of course, had their own more generalized support in the yellow journalism of the day. These are historical tendencies that have been repeated many times, ones that cannot be eliminated entirely—there will always be fearful and frustrated people. But they can be mitigated.
That is the good news. Fear and resentment, and the anti-social consequences of such negative emotions, can be significantly reduced by specific sociopolitical strategies. Paranoia and poor self-image will always cause some people to fear specific differences or to long for an ideology that places them on a rung somewhat higher than some “other” group. There will always be opportunists who will appeal to the fears and stereotypes of such people in order to gain influence and wealth. Such individuals will always seek out people who agree with them, people who are willing to join them in anti-social activities. But we can relieve many of the societal pressures that can initiate or accentuate such feelings and fears. That means we can reduce the factors that assist anti-social groups in recruiting new members.
One solution is to use both legal means and public pressure to discourage anti-social activities. Added penalties against hate-motivated violence have helped somewhat, as have generalized changes in societal attitudes. Lynchings and similar revenge murders once were public celebrations that defied prosecution; they are now widely condemned and the perpetrators are quickly arrested. Segregation, stereotyping, and job discrimination are still a serious problem, but we have made progress in reducing their effects and the attitudes that maintain them.
Another more indirect strategy, in many ways a more effective one, is to enact measures that reduce political and economic inequality, in the process reducing the insecurities and frustrations that can exacerbate fear and resentment. Progressive taxation, a viable economic safety net incorporating an adequate minimum wage, single-payer health insurance, adequately supported public education, and even campaign finance reform (to include public funding); these are all examples of policies that would tend to stabilize society.
History demonstrates the moderating influence provided by such progressive social efforts. The first Gilded Age (the half-century after the Civil War) saw extremes of economic fluctuation and public violence perpetrated by both left and right. Protests and strikes were often associated with, and opposed by, deadly violence. Race riots, ones that often destroyed entire neighborhoods, were common, as were public lynchings. Incidences of these extreme activities continued up to and throughout the Great Depression. In contrast, our current Gilded Age has wealth and income inequality matching the previous one, but there are now social support systems designed to moderate the impacts of economic downturns, labor regulations that reduce the risks involved in earning a living, and laws that reduce the effects of discrimination. Virtually none of these existed before 1910 (and yes, unfortunately, these are among the very systems and regulations that the Republican Party has been continually attempting to remove). In so many ways our current interpersonal interactions are more predictable and less violent and less prejudicial than they have been in the past, simply because we have reduced the economic insecurity and existential fear experienced by the average person.
We must learn from history. We must resist the backsliding that is occurring under the current federal administration and the divisive media that supports it. We must return to government policies that reduce inequalities in income, wealth, and political influence. We must work to protect, and eventually to expand again, the legal, economic, and psychosocial progress that the United States has made over the past century.