Meeting the Authoritarian Populism Challenge 5: The "Protected Classes" and the "Left Behind"

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

November, 2018

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Referenced Resources and Photo Credits found at the end of the transcript.


The last of our five-part series on Massively Parallel Peacebuilding based-strategies for resisting authoritarianism in addressing the legitimate concerns of grassroots citizens and "populists" on the left and the right. This post highlights the need for a positive-sum / win-win strategy for pursuing social equity, the importance of building strong relationships between long-standing populations and immigranting newcomers, the proper balance between religious and secular culture, the importance of appealing to common values.

Full Transcript

Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. In this final post on strategies for meeting the challenge posed by authoritarian populism, we are going to look at the divide between the "protected classes" and the "left behind" and at strategies for bringing these two groups together.


This and all other posts in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar Series are offered as preliminary ideas for discussion. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Slide 2. Again, more background on this entire series of posts, Massively Parallel Peacebuilding and Authoritarian Populism is available on the website.

Slide 3. For this post, I want to look further down the hierarchy that I did in the last post. Here, the focus will be on two groups that I talked about in more detail in the earlier series of mapping posts. One group is what I call the "protected classes." These are the folks that the Democrats traditionally champion: women, people with different sexual orientations, immigrants, people of color, and those with disabilities.

This post is part of a series of posts on Authoritarian Populism Name & Logoand strategies for more constructively addressing the red/blue divide.

It is also part of the larger Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo seminar series.

Slide 4. The second big group is commonly called the "left behinds." These are the folks that don't quite fall into any of the above protected classes, but they are also not members of the upper tiers of society and, in a great many cases, that they are struggling economically and socially. Base mobilization strategies being used to win elections and divide-and- conquer strategies being used by aspiring authoritarians and plutocrats play these two groups of people off against one another. For this post I want to start imagining a world in which effective steps have been taken to mitigate these tensions.

Slide 5. Immigration and Scapegoating -- Before I start, let me mention a few things again to think about. First, I want to be clear at the onset that a lot of the things that Donald Trump has been doing with respect to immigration and a lot of other pro-Democratic, protected class groups involves reprehensible scapegoating in which people are accused of all sorts of things that they are not guilty of. This is a big part of our problem, in part because a lot of the taboo lines that used to restrain us from extreme forms of political combat have collapsed on his watch, and because of his actions. So, that's part of it. We somehow have to find a way to challenge this sort of deliberate hate-mongering.

Slide 6. The Emerging Democratic Majority -- Still, there is another side of this that is also worth considering. This, I think, is the danger of thinking about the quest for social equity in simple demographic terms. This book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, came out in the early 2000s with an argument that has surfaced again and again in political articles and opinion pieces in the years since. It argues that, pretty soon, demographic changes (primarily increasing populations of various minority groups and immigrants), will get to the point where they will be the majority and whites will be minority population. Since these groups tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the book goes on to argue that Republicans will not stand much of a political chance. If you believe in a more conservative, Republican political philosophy, that's something that you're likely to find quite unsettling and something that you will push back against quite hard, if necessary. This suggests that Democrats, as they ask for equal treatment for their constituents, should not frame things as a win-lose conflict between competing identities. That's just asking to exacerbate the conflict.

Slide 7. Win-Win Social Equity -- So, what we need, I think,  is a better way of thinking about the quest for social equity and social justice (or, at least getting rid of acute injustice). Thinking of things in zero-sum, win-lose terms where the progress of one group must come at the expense of another group is certain to generate pushback and divisiveness. The tendency of the left to think in terms of proportionality (disproportionate impacts) encounters this problem. Democrats often look at the proportion of their "protected-class" constituents with some trait (e.g. arrest rate, average income, number of representatives in Congress). Then, they look at the proportion of folks in Republican circles that have the same trait and they try to divise policies that will shift the proportions in a more Democratic way. This way of framing the problem turns the core goal of social equity into a win-lose game. Struggling members of the white, "left behind," working-class don't feel that they have all that much that they're willing to give up (or that they have really been that discriminatory).

Slide 8. Non-Priviledged Whites -- So, what we need is a way of framing things that's positive-sum, win-win, where everybody has a stake in maintaining a common, social safety net that addresses the inequitable distribution of opportunities in a way that recognizes, among other things, that there are lots of white folks who are not in any meaningful sense of the word "privileged." They are being locked out of the meritocracy and top levels of the social hierarchy in much the same way that the various Democratic constituencies are being locked out. In short, the two groups have similar sets of problems.

Obviously, there are differences in the proportion of people in each group that face particular disadvantages. We need to find some way to reframe these issues in terms of genuine need that also accounts for the fact that some groups face different and more intense levels of discrimination than others and that people within each group have very different levels of opportunity. This is a vision that needs to be developed.  Again, that is something that small groups of people could come together to do.

Slide 9. Reserve Army of the Unemployed -- We also need to take a more honest look at the complex and difficult issues that surround immigration. While President Donald Trump's hate-mongering on immigration is clearly reprehensible, there are good reasons to ask and carefully consider a series of hard questions related to immigration. This is a link to an interesting article that shows how dramatically the demographic makeup of the United States is changing (again, there's a citation on the website). It's worth thinking about exactly what we want. The big and not preposterous thing to worry about is the possibility that excessive immigration could, in essence, wind up importing what Karl Marx referred to as the "reserve army of the unemployed" that will, in turn, drive down wages and opportunities for all — something that could lead to all sorts of other associated problems. Economists can argue how much immigration has contributed to stagnating wages. Still, the fact that people want it addressed in a credible way is not unreasonable.

Slide 10. Rates of Demographic Change -- This is a really interesting article with lots of great charts exploring the diversity of America on a county-by-county scale. It also explores the rate of change in the demographic makeup of a population. I encourage you to take a careful look at this.

Right now, however, I would like to highlight the figure in the bottom right of the PowerPoint. This is a map of counties that are relatively low on the diversity scale and were characterized by a more homogenous and traditional white population. These are also counties that are experiencing something new--rapid demographic diversification. This is the part of the country that has been rebelling against immigration and increasing diversification that has turned out to be politically very important. These counties are concentrated in some of the states that wound up flipping the election to Donald Trump.

This raises the question, what's the best way to deal with this? Right now, the rhetoric that we're getting in the political sphere is that anybody who has misgivings about the increasing diversification of their communities is a racist and someone undeserving of any sympathy. This doesn't seem like a very effective way of getting people to come to terms and accept substantial demographic change in their communities.

I think it would be far better for a whole series of small groups to come together with programs that would build connections and a sense of common cause between the traditional populations in these areas and the newcomers. If we focused on building relationships, rather than branding folks as either threats or racists, I think we'd be a whole lot better off. And, given how important this issue is, this is the kind of thing that I think could have transformative potential. Obviously, this is more likely to be successful if area economies are strong enough to support both newcomers and old-timers without driving down wages or opportunities.

Slide 11. Common Values -- Another thing to think about is the importance of projects that would help people reframe their aspirations not on their own narrow self-interest but in terms of common values that benefit the whole society and enjoy widespread support. People should confine their aspirations to things that are fair, based on common values. This means, of course, that if somebody else wants something based on those values, they should be allowed to have it. This is the core idea underlying Martin Luther King's famous appeal in his "I Have a Dream" speech for "America to live out the true meaning of its creed: 'we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'" There are a lot of other common values. We need to do a better job of phrasing and thinking about what we want in common values. We also need to remember that these common values are broader than a statement of our basic "rights"-- they are also a statement of our "obligations" to the larger society.

Slide 12. Yet another way of thinking about a vision for bringing us together focuses more on cultural issues and less on distributional issues. Here again, there are a lot of ways in which one could pursue this. In our earlier series on Mapping the Authoritarian Populism Problem we focused on the red/blue cultural dividing between the progressive cultural orientation and the conservative cultural orientation.

Slide 13. Multi-Multi-Culturalism -- One way to think about this is by drawing a distinction between multiculturalism and what you might call multi-multiculturalism, or what Eric Kaufmann calls multi-vocalism in this article, "How to Compromise With Populism," which I recommend very highly. Multiculturalism can reasonably be thought of as a "politically correct" philosophy and set of norms of behavior that folks on the progressive side of the political divide have developed over the years for governing interactions within their very diverse community. The problem is that its worldview is, in many ways, incompatible with the worldview of more traditionally-oriented conservatives.

If we are going to make a coexistence-oriented society work at the very large scale of contemporary society, we need an image of how multiculturalism can relate to an even broader array of cultures that include cultures that don't think much of multiculturalism. In a sense, this is a search for a more diverse diversity. We need something that goes beyond an "us versus them view" of culture in which multicultural and traditional cultures are struggling for supremacy.

This is what I find so intriguing about this article by Kaufmann. His concept of "multi-vocalism" makes use of a idea that Henry Kissinger articulated way back when he was trying to open doors with China--"constructive ambiguity." This view tolerates a certain amount of ambiguity about what a society's core values actually are. He thinks it's okay for the society to mean different things to different people because it makes it easier for us all to coexist. He does, however, identify a few common core values that have to underlie his more diverse diversity. Given that the "politically correct" culture enjoys such phenomenally low public support outside of the liberal wealthy elite (as this article demonstrates), I think this is an idea well worth pursuing. It's certainly the kind of "outside the box" thinking we are going to need to get out of this mess we are currently in.

Slide 14Science and Religion -- One last set of issues with respect to culture that I think is also worth getting people to think about starts with the notion that, in US society at least, there is supposed to be a very sharp separation between church and state. You are not supposed to be able to use the power of the government to advance or enforce your religious beliefs.

There are a couple of different ways to define religion. The one that I've always found useful sees it as a way of addressing two sets of issues: prescriptions for behavior (what is the right way to live) and why things happen (the origin stories about how the world got to be as it is). Traditional Christianity has an origin story embedded in Genesis and more broadly The Bible.  They also have a set of beliefs regarding behavior including for instance sexual behavior. Both of these have a clear religious origin and that they are based on what Christians believe to be the word of God.

On the secular, humanistic, progressive left you have a parallel set of beliefs regarding behavior that are more tolerant of homosexuality, transgender, and other alternative lifestyles, and they tend to believe more in terms of the "big bang, evolution, and other science-based origin stories. The slide contrasts the hand of God as depicted in the Sistine Chapel and the Large Hadron Collider which is trying to find the so-called "God particle." In many ways, these are two separate religions! 

But the thing is, that folks on the left don't see their beliefs as religious. So, they don't feel at all bad about using the power of the state to enforce their beliefs. And they get absolutely indignant when conservatives complain about this. Personally, I'm not quite sure what the right balance is. Clearly, there is a place for science, and it's somehow different than Christianity (or other standard "religions.")  At the very least, I think that this is an issue that should be honestly explored and one should be very careful about advancing moral beliefs under the guise of science.

Slide 15. So, this concludes my series of five posts highlighting some of the steps that might be taken to address what we are calling the Authoritarian Populism problem. I hope you found them interesting. There is a lot more detail under the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding section of the Beyond Intractability website. There, we talk about each of these challenges and introduce a lot more ideas on how each challenge might be addressed in the full range of intractable-related contexts.

Slide 16. There's also an  "Action List"  you can look at that highlights specifically things having to do with authoritarian populism as well as intractable, more generally.

Slide 17. There is also a section of the website highlighting "Things You Can Do to Help" that we are continually expanding.

Slide 18. There are other posts in this series of mini-lectures with a lot more detail and slightly different perspective on each of these topics.

Slide 19. Again, we need your support. Putting all of this together is something that we're doing with a very meager budget. Small amounts of money would help a lot and, of course larger amounts of money would help more. Again, there's information on how to donate on the website. We would be interested in hearing your reactions to these ideas and we would enjoy an opportunity to talk further.

Referenced Resources

Photo Credits