Post-Election Soul Searching: What We’ve Forgotten

In talking with many of my friends who share similar political views it has been up and down this past week.  We search for silver linings, we express anger and sadness, we try to calm ourselves down, and we aren’t always synchronized with others and so everybody can end up arguing with each other at some point.  For me, when something unfathomable to me happens I try to understand as hard as I can.  In many ways this is what led me to understand more about beliefs and why we have them and headed me down the path of neuroscience and cognitive science.  This post will be a bit long, but please don’t be intimidated most of it is copy and pasted from an article that I thought was very well written.  I hope you read the full articles, but if you don’t have time for that, you’ll have to settle for what I think are the most salient aspects.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, that was the beginning of my investigation into trying to understand the support for Trump and generating some empathy for people who voted for him. And it worked.  The eventual Trump win however caused me to go through some deeper introspection as to how I played a role in divisiveness and demonstrated a lack of empathy.  So I came across a couple of wonderful articles (here is one nice balanced perspective) that looks at this rule vs. urban phenomenon more deeply and I think they are excellent reads.  One of these articles I want to quote several passages.  It is an interview with a UW-Madison sociology professor (Kathy Kramer) who has done a lot of research with rural Wisconsinites.  Let’s take a look at some important passages from the article:

“Cramer argues that this “rural consciousness” is key to understanding which political arguments ring true to her subjects. For instance, she says, most rural Wisconsinites supported the tea party’s quest to shrink government not out of any belief in the virtues of small government but because they did not trust the government to help “people like them.”

“Support for less government among lower-income people is often derided as the opinions of people who have been duped,” she writes. However, she continues: “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.”

Here we can see an important problem.  And the problem perhaps goes for many liberals as well.  Our identities are tied up in our politics.  Perhaps this should not be so.  We know inside we will never get a candidate he really caters to everything we belief.  In fact, most politicians don’t end up doing most of the things they say they are going to do in an election.  It is because our identities are associated with politics that populists exploit them to gain support.  What if instead we expected politicians to give detailed plans on how they would address the issues of all Americans?  You might not be a person living in the rural counties of the rust belt,  but what are their problems?  And if you are a democratic party member should your candidate not be addressing those people?  Sitting down and talking to them.  The same goes for Republican candidates also.

“What I was hearing was this general sense of being on the short end of the stick. Rural people felt like they not getting their fair share.

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.”

I thought this section of the article was very meaningful.  The first point is something very similar to what I’ve experienced in Canada.  People say things like “The feds aren’t listening to Francophones”, “the government is in the east, and nobody is listening to the west”, “government isn’t helping anyone in the rural areas”.  If you are a journalist doing an in depth story on the problems of the day, you probably live in a city, and there are so many people of different walks of life there, you probably would never step outside the city limits.  But the problems of the day are both urban and rural issues.  I can imagine it must be difficult for people in rural areas to pay taxes but not see benefits from that.  Now maybe they are and they don’t know it, but the fact that they have this perception is a valid thing that needs to be addressed.  I can imagine a majority of tax money being used for urban purposes.  Cities make the most noise usually, especially since that’s where the media focus is as well as where politicians spend most of their time.  And her third point speaks to our own contribution to divisiveness between rural and urban.  I’ll own up and say that I have over generalized in that manner and it was wrong.  And even if they are racist, they are still human.  Why do they have that attitude?  Is it just ignorance?  Is it that they have been fed false information?  Is it anecdotal experience that was taken as truth instead of an exception?  We all know we can easily succumb to such things and develop incorrect or harmful opinions and attitudes, despite the fact that we have the best of intentions.

In looking at attitudes of resentment Cramer has this to say:

income-inequality-usa-15“Look at all the graphs showing how economic inequality has been increasing for decades. Many of the stories that people would tell about the trajectories of their own lives map onto those graphs, which show that since the mid-’70s, something has increasingly been going wrong.

It’s just been harder and harder for the vast majority of people to make ends meet. So I think that’s part of this story. It’s been this slow burn.

Resentment is like that. It builds and builds and builds until something happens. Some confluence of things makes people notice: I am so pissed off. I am really the victim of injustice here.

Not much to say here other than problems don’t just go away, they keep getting worse when left unaddressed.  I suspect democrats aren’t entirely to blame either.  It’s been going on for years under various administrations.  Maybe we can even see this as a source of a lot of racial issues that are cropping up now as well.  Problems that have been happening for years and now resentment is just so high people are angry and upset.

On the issue of race there were several good points raised:

We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

In my mind, through resentment and these notions of deservingness, that’s where you can see how economic anxiety and racial anxiety are intertwined.”

While race certainly plays a role there is again this blue collar vs white collar, rural vs. urban issue popping up again.  My father was a machinist and so really appreciate the value of his work and others like him.  I have often worried about how my son will perceive those people in society given that he won’t have personal experience the way that I have.  But we do live very much in a society where blue collar jobs, low wage workers in retail or the restaurant industry are looked down upon.  I had read an article a few years ago from the perspective of a poor single mother who worked every day, lived paycheck to paycheck, and was on welfare.  She said that she didn’t mind being poor or being somebody who had to work a lot harder than everybody else and not really get ahead, but what mattered most was that people actually felt that she had value.  We shame and dehumanize a lot in this society.  Some people are not good people.  Some are lazy, racist, misogynistic, xenophobes, apathetic, selfish, but they are still human and we have to ask always, how did they get that way?  And if they are treated with kindness and humanity, is there a way in which we can make them a better person?  Cramer continues with:

It’s absolutely racist to think that black people don’t work as hard as white people. So what? We write off a huge chunk of the population as racist and therefore their concerns aren’t worth attending to?

How do we ever address racial injustice with that limited understanding?

Of course [some of this resentment] is about race, but it’s also very much about the actual lived conditions that people are experiencing. We do need to pay attention to both.

Great words.  The interviewer then asks about the idea of people not feeling like they are getting what they deserve:

“Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.

Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They sayit used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.”

When I read this passage it really made me think that this is what a lot of Americans are facing, not just ones in rural areas.  I’ve seen many articles about how the millennial generation struggle compared to their parents simply with costs being much higher in comparison to wages.  Even with a professor wage I know I have less buying power per dollar than my parents did.  There are so many Americans facing the same struggle financially.  The theme continues and Bernie Sanders gets a mention:

         “It’s not inevitable that people should assume that the decline in their quality           of life is the fault of other population groups. In my book I talk about rural              folks resenting people in the city. In the presidential campaign, Trump is very          clear about saying: You’re right, you’re not getting your fair share, and look            at these other groups of people who are getting more than their fair share.                Immigrants. Muslims. Uppity women.

But here’s where having Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump running alongside one another for a while was so interesting. I think the support for Sanders represented a different interpretation of the problem. For Sanders supporters, the problem is not that other population groups are getting more than their fair share, but that the government isn’t doing enough to intervene here and right a ship that’s headed in the wrong direction.”

leaderI thought this was an interesting observation.  I too saw the excitement Bernie had been getting among more rural and working class voters.  Whether you agreed with his solutions are not, he was also resonating with those that were angry at the government, those that felt the government wasn’t serving their best interests.  Maybe he still wouldn’t have won the presidency, but I do think he at least took the right approach into reaching people and finding common ground among both urban and rural working class citizens.

So what is the way out of this all? Cramer had this to say:

“People for months now have been told they’re absolutely right to be angry at the federal government, and they should absolutely not trust this woman, she’s a liar and a cheat, and heaven forbid if she becomes president of the United States. Our political leaders have to model for us what it’s like to disagree, but also to not lose basic faith in the system. Unless our national leaders do that, I don’t think we should expect people to.”

As much as I’d like to believe that everybody can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps I know that it is really not possible.  I’ve felt for some time that it is our leadership who actually have to convince us that they serve us and not special interest groups.  They need be more vocal about us coming together.  Sadly I think many of them know that keeping us divided is a more effective way to keep power than to get us to unite.

In the end Cramer reminds us that empathy, that talking to each other face-to-face and listening are the most valuable tools we have as individuals:

“One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, “There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?”

Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?

I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.

And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.

That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.

I’ve always grown in my life when I’ve gotten to know people from different walks of life and I need to continue.  Make an effort to do so.  It was easier growing up because I met so many people from other countries, with various levels of education and careers.  When one has a career themselves it gets a little harder.  I know pretty much other professors and students.  Maybe I need to help Kathy Cramer with her research. 🙂

rural__disenfranchised_voters_push_trump_0_6563315_ver1-0_640_360When it comes to terrorism and the issue of Syrian refugees I’ve spent a lot of time showing research and trying to explain to people the importance of compassion and how disenfranchising people who need our help is likely to increase the level of extremism and not reduce it.  It plays into ISIS’ hands.  And this is all true.  But what if, and I know it’s not all people who voted for Trump, but what is there are lot of disenfranchised white rural voters living in poverty?  Is it likely that they might start adopt more extreme views as well?  It’s an interesting pause for thought.

So in this post I maybe haven’t give a lot of love to all of us who are hurting right now, but I felt this part of the discussion is important.  In my next post, I will talk more about why I think many of us have cause for concern at the new government we face, and how the empathy that I have tried to build here for the Trump voter is not just a one way street.

Skills and Value

Topics are building up in my head faster than I have time to write them, and so despite the fact that I swore I was going to write about numerous other topics, particularly in the area of psychology a Facebook conversation has led me down a different path.

The conversation was about a McDonalds worker who wanted her $8/hr salary to go up to

From money.cnn.com

the living wage of $15/hr.  Which is still not a terribly high wage.  The conversation that ensued went as you’d expect.  Most people (who are in good jobs and living comfortably) saying that working at McDonalds requires no skill and thus should be paid accordingly.  Or criticizing the person for not doing more with their life and thus have no one but themselves to blame.  One person did make the argument that no wage has kept pace with inflation, which is true, but minimum wage has gone up at an even slower rate.

I made numerous arguments in response, most importantly challenging the assumption that the person had all these choices in their life.   Most of the people reading this blog live in a position of privilege.   And it’s not your fault.  Your parents probably pushed you, help educate you, made you aware of different options for your life, encouraged you to do well in school.  You probably grew up in relatively safe neighborhoods.  You had friends that were similar to you.  You had good schools to go to, with a lot of skilled teachers.  But not all neighborhoods are safe.  Not all parents care enough to encourage your education.

From blog.volunteerspot.com

Not all schools are equal in the quality of education they provide.  Some environments make it easier to fall into a bad crowd.  Not everyone has the freedom to go for further training after they get out of high school.  Maybe they have to work to take care of a sick parent who has massive bills because they couldn’t afford health insurance.  There are a million scenarios that could limit the opportunities one has.

I also made the argument that I did not choose my career path as a meteorology professor because of the money.  It is because I loved it.  I am glad it pays well enough for me to live comfortably.  But should all of a sudden a McDonalds job become available that pays more.  I am not going to jump ship and say, “Yay more money, flipping burgers all day is going to be awesome!”.

An argument was made by someone that garbage men get paid a good wage so they

From nypost.com

could do that instead of working at McDonalds.  Okay true.  But we can’t all be sanitation workers let alone teachers, lawyers and doctors.  It’s also important to remember that at one time sanitation workers didn’t get paid very much.  Thanks to unions though they could organize, strike, and refuse to pick up garbage until they made a decent wage to live by.  Because picking up the trash and removing waste from our streets is actually an important and necessary part of our society.

I think education and teachers are extremely important.  But do I think that makes a job that doesn’t require as much knowledge and skill less important?  Of course not.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about my role in society than someone who picks up the garbage.  In fact someone could argue that picking up the trash is perhaps more important.  When trash was in the streets, things like the bubonic plague happened.  Hygiene and sanitation are extremely important.  So let’s go a step further.  Is there anything more inherently valuable about my job than a restaurant worker?  Arguably we can have a world without restaurants and everybody cooks their own food.  Might  not be a bad world, but that’s not ultimately our world.  People like to go out to eat.  There will always be restaurants.  So restaurants are just as much part of the fabric of society as anything else.  So should the required skill level in any job be what determines the wage.  The sanitation worker, from a skill level is just as demanding as a burger flipper and yet makes more.   Is that right?  I would further argue that an employee earning a living wage at any job has more loyalty to the company and stays longer thus becoming better at their job.  If you’ve had bad service at a McDonalds, maybe it’s because they are constantly having to train new people since the pay is so bad that people leave after a short time.  The money isn’t probably worth the level of abuse they get from customers.

Now there are even more good arguments to be made about a McDonalds worker making a living wage.  They would need less social programs saving the taxpayer money, they can perhaps afford to move to send their kids to a better school to break the cycle of poverty, not to mention they may now have more free time to better themselves or spend with their kids, which also helps break the cycle.  However what concerns me the most is the attitude towards the poor.  One commenter on this thread said that “it serves them right making a low wage for their self-inflicted wounds”.  I was like wow.  As I’ve just argued it is extremely judgmental to assume the wounds are self-inflicted, but basically this person is saying:

“Hey poor person, sucks about the mistakes you made in the past.  You deserve now to suffer the rest of your life because of that”.

How callous is that? I wonder if that person has ever had somebody so unforgiving to their mistakes. And how should the poor person respond?

” Thank a lot Captain Hindsight.  Now that I realize my mistakes I’ll go back in time and fix it.”

Furthermore we can see how materialistic our society is by people who would look down on poor people in such a way.  Because where is the condemnation to the rich owner of

From socialmarketbuzz.com

McDonalds or any corporation?  Why don’t we judge him just as harshly?  Because he has money of course.  And obviously he must be working really really hard in order to make all that money.  This is of course nonsense.  A single mother working two jobs to support her family is most definitely working harder than the CEO of McDonalds. And I doubt that mother is having fancy lunches on an expensive account and playing a round of golf out in the sun with business associates.  But even if they were equal, why is that CEO more valuable than the person working at minimum wage jobs?  The corporation itself made almost $30 billion last year in revenues.  And the CEO’s take home pay is $9 million a year.  Is that CEO that much more valuable than one of his employees?  Is he/she that much more skilled?

And if workers should get a living wage, many argue about how much everything will cost.  But there is a second option.  The company could make less money.  The CEO could make less money.  Is that likely?  Perhaps not, but in the free market there is always somebody who is going to take an advantage of an opportunity and will undercut the competition and take home only 2 million a year instead.  That CEO is still living a better life than 99.99% of the people in this world.  If we want to equate a monetary value to skill, a CEO still makes far beyond what his or her skill warrants.

The Great Pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the world, was built on the backs of slave labor to entomb the rich and powerful.  When I look at the vast wealth of a few, at the expense of countless millions who can barely meet their daily nutritional needs for themselves and their families, I wonder how much things have really changed.  What’s clear is that by dehumanizing the poor as many do in this country it allows a system to continue that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.  So it saddens and sickens me when I hear people idolize wealth and abhor the poor.  If the income gap continues to widen in this country I can tell you that statistically speaking one is more likely to find themselves in a poor man’s shoes.  Perhaps only then will people learn.