By Jason Brennan
Tyler Cowen asks today, if Trump wins, what’s the best theory of why? He offers a number of hypotheses, including that Hillary is unpopular, as well as cistscism:
Polls do tend to show that a large percentage of both Trump and Clinton supporters hold what are plausibly seen as explicitly racist views. Note that because of social desirability bias, these polls probably understate just how racist their supporters are.
Here I’ll speculate a little about racism. I wonder if being called racist has lost its sting, and I wonder if the Left has itself (or a loud subset of membership) helped to cause this.
Anecdotally, it generally seemed to me in all the places I’ve lived (working class Massachusetts neighborhoods, libertarianish New Hampshire, northern Ohio, southern Arizona, Rhode Island, NoVA, etc.) that the white people around me were horrified of racism and being called racists. Few of them would utter any explicitly racist claims or express such attitudes. While they no doubt probably had implicit bias, they generally pushed each other to avoid explicit bias.
Granted, this is anecdotal, and perhaps other parts of the country are quite different. But keep in mind I’m not just talking about the fancy white people at universities, but working class Irish kids, kids from Ohio farms, and “the wrong kind of white people”. In short, however racist white Americans might be, most of them at least explicitly believed that racism was wrong and wanted to avoid being called or seen as racist.
They wanted to be the good white people who rose above racism.
Over the past 15-20 years or so, though, it seems that the Left has often tried to take advantage of this to influence what white people believe. The Left has a strong tendency to call any non-Leftist views racist. Conservatives: “People should be rewarded for their hard work.” The Left: “Oh, that’s racist.” Conservatives: “Welfare policies invite at least some abuse.” The Left: “That’s racist.” Conservatives: “Campuses should be centers of open dialogue.” The Left: “That’s racist! You only say that because you’re racist.” Etc. Granted, not all leftists talk that way, but many do, and the ones that do are loud. Working at a university, it’s pretty clear that most campus leftists regard any form of conservatism as inherently racist, sexist, and degenerate. Watching the Daily Show gives the same vibe. Anything a moderate or a conservative says is racist.
I’m not sure whether these accusations were sincere or tactical. But many loud people Left seemed to operate on the theory that they can bully conservatives and moderates into compliance by calling them racist. “You don’t want to be racist, do you? Well, then you must accept my view of fiscal policy and trade theory.”
I wonder if this has backfired. Maybe there comes a point where people subconsciously go through the following kind of reasoning: “No matter what we say or do, the people with whom we disagree are going to see us as racists. They’ve made it clear that they think we’re racists. Well, if that’s the case, I guess there’s nothing to lose with actually being or becoming racists.” If everyone is going to believe you’re a thief no matter what you do, you might as well start stealing. Similarly, if everyone is going to say you’re a racist no matter whether you deserve it, then you might as well be racist.
Inadvertently, by overusing accusations of racism, the Left lowered the marginal reputation cost of being racist and lowered the marginal cost of uttering explicitly racist beliefs. By lowering the cost of racism, it made it so that more people “bought” it.
To be clear (though I expect a bunch of leftists to ignore this caveat), I am not saying that because people were being unfairly accused of racism, that it’s therefore okay for them to be racist. I’m not saying the Left should blame itself for the rise of racism. I’m just speculating about causation.
In principle we could test it with empirical data. It might be completely wrong.
By the way, on implicit bias tests, I score much lower than the rest of you, so before you go there, you’re all more racist than I am by a few standard deviations. Shape up, you racist jerks.
Jason Brennan is an Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
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