Redistribution Isn’t Enough

What support for Trumpism suggests about the limits of our prevailing political theories.

Designing a City On a Hill

Imagine for a moment that you and a group of strangers are asked to design a set of rules that will govern the city in which you’ll live. Except there’s a catch: while deciding on these rules you don’t know whether you’ll be rich or poor; young or old; able bodied or disabled; smart or not; black, white, male, female, gay, straight, etc. In other words, you know nothing about what your circumstances will be when you emerge from your deliberations.

What rules would you decide on? You’d probably prohibit discrimination. You’d likely push for some kind of democratic governance. Maybe you’d tolerate some level of inequality if it encouraged people to take risk and innovate for the everyone’s benefit. But you’d probably also argue for a social safety net, in case you draw the short stick and wind up a ‘have not.’ Or maybe you’d take your chances and argue for more of a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ type culture.

If you’ve ever taken an intro philosophy class, you may recognize this thought experiment as the “veil of ignorance.” Developed by John Rawls, it gives us a way to think about fairness in society as if we were behind a veil, uncertain of our circumstances in life, in order to better conceptualize what the ideal distribution of resources and opportunity should look like.

For years, this way of thinking has been the central focus of our left/right political debates. What’s the “right” amount of redistribution? Should we lower taxes or expand the safety net? Should we expand regulations or leave it to the market to figure out? Are people the product of character or circumstance?

But if the past few years have made anything clear, it’s that this way of thinking is no longer adequate for helping us navigate the challenges we face. That’s because, as I want to argue, the distribution of just desserts isn’t the only existential question we face. The level of social connectivity and cohesion — the balance of individualism and community in society — is essential as well.

“Why did 74 million people vote against their self interest?”

Early in Covid, my cousin set up a family Slack channel to make it easier for our colorful and boisterous extended family to connect during quarantine. Like our conversations over Thanksgiving, topics tend to cycle between making fun of each other, commenting on food or recipes, and of course, arguing over politics. So it was on Slack that, in the course of bantering about the 2020 election results, my uncle asked rhetorically: “Why did 74 million people vote against their self-interest?”

It’s not a new question. In 2004, journalist Thomas Frank dedicated an entire book to the question, provocatively titled, What’s the Matter With Kansas? Frank’s argument, which remains the conventional wisdom, is that Republicans appeal to white working class voters by adopting socially conservative positions and running against the “liberal elite.” Then, once in power, they advance economically conservative policies to benefit their affluent donor base. Trump, the argument goes, took this anti-elitism to the extreme, elevating it to a proverbial blood sport.

This idea is seductive because it makes it easy for progressives to think they’re right even when they lose. Voters must be naive or have wool pulled over their eyes. Except there’s a problem with this line of reasoning; it’s not actually backed up by the data:

While being left behind may not be a good predictor of voting patterns, it turns out that fear of being left behind — fear of seeing one’s social, cultural and economic status decline — is. But this still brings us back to the same fundamental question my uncle asked. If it’s the fear of being left behind that drives voter preferences, then why don’t candidates who support more redistributive policies do better? If politics operates like John Rawls suggests it should, isn’t that what we’d expect?

Something else puzzled me about support for Trump. Sure, I could understand worrying that your quality of life is declining and supporting an anti-elitist populist as a consequence in 2016. But what I couldn’t understand was how, after four years of manifest cruelty, how could people support Trump in 2020? How could people look at the Muslim ban; the denigration of the disabled, refugees, veterans, women, protestors, journalists, the entire continent of Africa, political opponents, etc.; the family separations; the attempts to strip healthcare from millions of Americans during a global pandemic; the stripping of healthcare protections from trans individuals during pride month; the criminal negligence in the lack of a nationally-coordinated Covid strategy; and so on — and see it all as evidence of his willingness to “buck convention” or to “own the libs,” instead of appreciating the harmful impact such behavior has on others?

When Social Connection Declines, Empathy Ebbs

A week after posing that rhetorical question, my cousin shared an article from FiveThirtyEight’s Daniel Cox about why the 2020 polls seemed to once again underestimate support for Donald Trump. What caught my attention though wasn’t the article’s point about polling. It was Cox’s observation that those who are socially disconnected were both less likely to participate in public polling and more likely to support Trump. He went on to say this observation wasn’t his alone:

During the 2016 Republican primary, Yoni Appelbaum at The Atlantic noted that Trump was drawing support disproportionately from those who said they were civically disengaged. An analysis by Emily Ekins of the conservative-leaning Cato Institute found that despite Trump’s continued strong support among white evangelical Protestants, he was actually viewed more positively by supporters who weren’t involved in regular religious practice. Finally, research on the 2016 election by David Shor, a Democratic pollster, echoed what we found in our own pre-election 2020 survey: There was a large swing to Trump among white voters who had low levels of social trust — a group that researchers have found is also less likely to participate in telephone surveys.

A lightbulb went off. While I’ve written before about how the decline of community is an important contributor to our polarized present, I had never seen the data connecting social disconnection to support for Trumpism presented so succinctly. But it made perfect sense: If you lack deep connections with those around you, and particularly those who are different than you, then it becomes easier to see cruelty in politics and policy as “sticking it to your enemies” and harder to imagine the negative impact on others, let alone to imagine yourself in their shoes. Stated simply, when social connection declines, empathy ebbs with it.

Given how separated we’ve become from one another — with our own news feeds and Netflix scrolls; living (if we’re privileged) in gated communities or giant houses oriented around our private backyards and interior space; relying on gig economy workers that we only interact with virtually, never in person; focusing on human capital maximization to the detriment of the relationships in our lives — this insight should should give us pause. So long as we remain disconnected from one another, while Trump may exit stage left for Mar a Lago this winter, it suggests Trumpism may be here to stay.

Which brings me back to Rawls.

Beyond the Veil of Ignorance

When I was in college, I remember Rawls’ veil of ignorance being presented as a brilliantly simple framework for conceptualizing “justice as fairness.” The theory argues that if people were brought together to decide on the rules for their society, without knowing what their station in life would be, they’d rationally adopt two principles.

This would ensure that no matter where someone landed in society, they would have the freedom and ability to lead their life as they saw fit. And indeed, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking, rooted in a conception of people as “autonomous” beings, hard-wired to pursue their rational self-interest, colors our political debates today.

But there’s a problem with this approach: what happens when people begin to question whether they’re in the same society at all? How do we negotiate principles of justice behind a veil of ignorance, when it’s not clear who belongs behind the veil in the first place? Stated simply, Rawls takes membership in society as a given. Even behind the veil, he presupposes that people feel some kinship or connection to each other. But is this assumption tenable in today’s increasingly socially disconnected world?

What this suggests is that arguing over economic inequality is necessary but insufficient. In this digital age, we have to invest in institutions that bind us together — things like families, local communities, shared experiences, shared culture, and shared sources of Truth. We need to set aside the liberal fiction that we’re autonomous agents who exist only to pursue our narrow self-interest, and return to a more holistic understanding that we’re individuals enmeshed in webs of relationships; that in addition to rights, we have responsibilities to one another; and that it’s only when communities thrive that individuals can flourish.

If we can make this shift, then maybe we can design a city worth living in, not just in theory, but in practice as well.

What do you think?

Cover Photo by Ryan De Hamer on Unsplash

I write about healthcare, social capital and political philosophy in today’s digital economy.