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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Psychological underpinnings of the politics defeating the Green New Deal

The US has become a pariah nation in terms of response to global climate change, but it is not because the average person is anti-environment. Recent surveys have indicated that an overwhelming majority of Americans and even a strong majority of politically conservative Americans agree with the tenets of the Green New Deal Proposal: rapid conversion to a carbon neutral economy and channeling of employment opportunities the green economy creates to those displaced by the old, fossil fuel-based economy. And yet, the majority also voted for a president who denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change. As such, it’s fair to conclude that environmental issues are not driving American voting patterns.

Instead, a key motivational factor for many Republican voters appears to be a new white nationalism driven by antipathy toward immigrants and other outgroups. But what motivates these feelings, racism or conservatism?

The question is a difficult one. A recent study out of Harvard addressed this issue and found that the types of surveys that measure racism are flawed and can no longer be trusted. The introduction to the study distinguishes between old school, pre-Civil Rights Movement racism that was largely based on notions of biological inferiority and “modern racism,” which is based on attitudes toward group behavior. For forty years, modern racism against Black people has been assessed with variants of a survey that asked for degrees of agreement/disagreement with the following four statements:

(1) Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserved.

(2) Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

(3) It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.

(4) Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

The authors of the recent study noticed a resemblance between these questions and the tenets of the “Just World Belief Scale,” a measure of modern conservatism developed by Lipkus:

(You'll have to cut and paste this URL; Wix blocks Sci-Hub. )

A six point-scale with responses from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” is applied to the following statements:

(1) I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.

(2) I feel that a person’s efforts are noticed and rewarded.

(3) I feel that people earn the rewards and the punishments they get.

(4) I feel that people who meet with misfortune have brought it on themselves.

(5) I feel that people get what they deserve.

(6) I feel that rewards and punishments are fairly given.

(7) I basically feel the world is a fair place.

So, are measures of “modern racism” really measures of conservatism, thus making conservatives not necessarily racist? The Harvard study tested this proposition by replacing “Blacks” with other groups in the modern racism survey questions. These groups included those unlikely to be familiar to survey respondents (Bhutanese, for example) as well as whites and Hispanics. I’m not a political scientist, but I have a strong enough background in statistics to have read the paper and feel it is probably solid. The surprise was that conservatives (defined by many different measures all producing the same answers) answered the questions identically regardless of group to which they pertained. Liberals, on the other hand, differed markedly in their answers between Blacks and other groups.

A striking conclusion resulted: since conservatives don’t tend to consider behavior of Blacks as different from whites or from any other group, prejudiced attitudes toward Blacks and other outgroups are not derived from attitudes toward behavior of these groups. So, at least today (perhaps not so when these measures were first developed), the modern racism surveys don’t measure the type of racism they claim to. However, conservatives do downplay the unique historical circumstances that underlie intergroup inequality. So, it’s this blindness to differing circumstances, rather than bigoted attitudes based in either misunderstandings of biology or misinformation concerning behavior, that attracts conservatives to racist/bigoted policy positions, or so this study claims.

I’d like to differ—I don’t think it’s this simple. I don’t have a position in Harvard’s political science department, so I don’t have the luxury of their resources to test my ideas, but I figure I’ll thrown them out anyway for discussion and debate. I have noticed in my years teaching at the graduate, undergraduate, and high school levels that attitudes toward hard work differ markedly. I’ll group these attitudes into three classes, based on agreement with one of these three statements:

(1) Hard work is strongly correlated with material success, and material success is valuable.

(2) Hard work is worthless and unnecessary, as there are easier ways to achieve material success.

(3) Hard work on worthwhile objectives is intrinsically valuable but not tightly correlated with material success.

In the first group, I’ve seen two types of people: the engineer/manager and the generationally impoverished. The first typically pursues a technical degree, leverages a few years of hard work into entrance to the management track, and gains material wealth through working long hours. Many regard themselves as the hardest working people they know. And many do get rich, especially those working for your Googles and Apples. Many also find themselves unemployed and unemployable later in life by industries that prefer twenty-somethings willing to work eighty-hour weeks.

I have seen the identical attitudes in economically disadvantaged populations. They agree that hard work can lead to movement into the middle class, but they don’t want to do it. Some proudly proclaim themselves to be lazy. And by setting the example that neither hard work nor education has value, they pass on these attitudes to their children.

These groups respond to perceived threats from out-groups. The engineer types often see affirmative action programs as gaming the system, getting an unfair advantage over they who work hard. And Trump certainly used a divide-and-conquer strategy with the “deplorables”; the “fill-in-the-blanks” are stealing what is rightfully yours worked well as messaging with them.

The second class includes “investors” and trust fund babies as well as grifters and other sorts of criminals. Anyone ever quote “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” at you? They are in this group. The introduction to that book denigrates the author’s parents—both teachers—as suckers who worked too hard in life. Since the 1990s, a near majority of Ivy League graduates have gone into finance or other investment-related occupations. Why invent if you can make money from money?

This group is more complicated. Sometimes they can prey off of the out-group. Investment bankers, for example, hawked collateralized debt obligations that led to foreclosures on middle class homeowners—peasants in their eyes—in the lead-up to the 2008 economic downturn. Sometimes they can gain power via cozying up to their in-group: Bernie Madoff with his friends and family.

This group is narcissistic—they will always seek their own advantage. Sometimes the advantage is with Republicans; sometimes with Democrats. As the generationally wealthy go, the Fanjuls are an excellent example. I’ve blogged about them previously. These “sugar scumbags,” who were convicted for slavery on their plantations in Florida in the 1970s only to move the same practices to the Dominican Republic, give lavishly to both Republicans and Democrats.

And the thuggier criminals rarely pass up a chance to get rich based on race or ethnicity of the victims.

The third class transcends economic status. It includes the wealthiest do-gooders in the country, solidly middle class folks in helping professions, and working class people happy to go into work and serve their customers/clients.

Here’s my prescription for combatting hate-based politics that get in the way of environmental progress: (1) Ignore the second class. Even if you can buy them temporarily, they’ll be off looking for the next angle as soon as one presents itself. (2) Ignore the third class. They are already on the right side of history. Their empathy predisposes them toward environmental justice and the side of the planet. (3) Focus on the first group, but don’t try to convince them historical injustice makes the playing field non-level. They’ll never get it.

Instead, focus on the characteristics of today’s out-group with which they will relate. To use immigrants as an example, say they work hard. They do. Anyone who has ever watched immigrant landscapers or roofers in Florida working will not deny this proposition. Add that the current group is indeed playing by the rules. It is absolutely legal for Central American immigrants to seek refugee status. The muddled news coverage has kept a surprising number of Republican voters from understanding this simple tenet of American (and international) law.

If this class of Republican voters grows to see immigrants as hard-working people who play by the rules and who just want a shot to be good Americans, attitudes will soften. I’d suggest looking for similar ways to connect to conservative values for all others Trump has painted as dangerous and threatening outgroups.

To those who object to this psychology-based politics as demeaning, as much as I’d love to live in a world with less hate, I won’t, and certainly my children won’t, if the global environment is allowed to decay at current rates.

Yes, I was out demonstrating when it first became clear Trump was ordering children to be ripped from their families and caged at the border. And yes, the noise led to policy changes, albeit not enough change. But it didn’t change voting patterns. You can try to appeal to class 1 voters based on the essential inhumanity of persecuting refugee children, but you’re wasting your voice. You can’t change American politics with these arguments.

Have at it—start arguing. Fill up my Facebook and Twitter feeds with comments and critique. Let’s refine these strategies and then test them. You don’t need a Harvard professorship, just a voice.

The world waits for the change that will ensue.

And time is running out.

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