The sociological story behind the US election

Voters voted their self identity allegiance to their political ‘tribe’.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

OpEds Tel-Avivians respond to US elections
Tel-Avivians respond to US elections

This article is an analysis of the recent American election by a sociologist whose social philosophy is heavily influenced by the understandings of Torah Judaism. It attempts to put the election’s political headline issues in the context of the tidal wave of social change that has been assaulting us over the past three decades.

It is based on ten days of conversations during the election period with my closest relatives and friends (virtually all of whom voted for Clinton, and fear-if not, loath- Trump), and a careful listening to America’s liberal media.

In sociological terms the election, in retrospect, was a very volatile clash of two camps (political tribes) whose world view and social philosophy radically differ on how to cope with the forces of social change.

More than the voters of these two camps balloted their economic self interest, or personal reactions to campaign headlines, they voted according the social-existential anxieties of their “stomach”, trepidations generated by rapid, unprecedented social change. In somewhat more abstract terms, we can say that they voted their self identity and self image’ as defined by their allegiance to two differing social strategies of coping with rapid social change.

In this vein, two American political sociologists, Achen and Bartels, write that, “Its values and not policy position papers that decide elections. Its values and emotional intuitions that matter. We divide up into tribes, and we vote as tribes. …We conclude that group and partisan loyalties , not policy preferences or ideologies, are fundamental in democratic politics….for most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgments about where ‘people like me ‘ belong.”

The conservative and liberal ‘tribal’ strategies for coping with rapid social change

The conservative camp is composed of social sub groups who believe that the best way for handling social change is the strategy that “the best defense is an even stronger defense”. The conservative camp has an innately cautious, skeptical approach to social change, has a skeptical, ‘pessimistic/realistic’ understanding of human nature, and believes that social reforms should be implemented in a step by step, trial and error pace.

In time of change, the conservative camp finds critical guidance and support in traditional family structure, traditional beliefs concerning patriotism/nationalism, and in religious faith and religious institutions. I identify with this conservative strategy of coping with social change.

In contrast, the liberal camp is composed of social groups that believe that the best way for coping with social change is the strategy that “the best defense is a good offense”. Liberals tend to excitingly welcome and ‘surf’ the waves of social change. The liberal camp is optimistic (and sometimes even messianic) in their belief that social change can be a critical instrument for advancing societal progress, progress that has the potential of lessening human suffering and exploitation, and progress that has the potential to enhance individual freedom and well being , and unite humanity.

The liberal camp is optimistic about the potential of human nature. Twenty first century, post modern liberalism tends to define human progress in terms of enhancing the freedoms and social resources that will allow for the  maximum self actualization and creativity of the private individual ( as opposed to twentieth century, modern liberalism which focused on social class conflict, and on the realignment of the power relationships between the working and ruling classes).

I believe that history has shown that liberals naively overestimate the positive possibilities of human nature, and tragically underestimate the dangers of dismantling the basic traditional social institutions of the two parent, family, religion and national solidarity.

Campaign issues and strategies of coping with social change

How do the issues of the campaign illustrate my thesis that voters primarily vote the self identity (image) that is defined by (more accurately, derived from) their allegiance to liberal or conservative strategies for coping with powerful social change?

The liberals (Democrats) emphasized promoting measures to increase economic equality and social welfare-education-child care programs, to empower, and  lessen discrimination, with regard to minorities, promote gender equality and self choice, to encourage building a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society (encouraging immigration), and furthering  governmental programs  of climate control and ecological development.

We can summarize that the Democratic platform focused on enhancing the welfare of the individual, that is to say promoting freedom, empowerment and economic equality for the largest possible diversity of ethnic and gender social sub groups.

The conservatives (Republicans) emphasized programs that gave priority to business expansion ( job creation) over programs of social welfare, climate control, and the lessening of economic equality. They emphasized controlling and limiting immigration in order to promote traditional American nationalism, and limit the development of a multi ethnic society. Similarly they voiced preference for strengthening traditional family and religious structures over the promotion of gender equality and free choice. 

In summary, the Republicans gave less priority to individual empowerment, and more to conserving and promoting traditional social institutions.

These policies thus do reflect the very differing underlying strategies for coping with rapid social change, even though the vast majority of the campaign headlines focused on Trump and Clinton’s misdeeds and personality weaknesses. We should not let the ‘sandstorm and fog’ of the battlefield keep us from seeing the core social philosophical differences dividing the two political camps.

Social change: the radical increase in individual social mobility

The basic social changes of the last three decades can be summed up in one word: MOBILITY; today’s individual has before him a historically unprecedented range of social options, thus automatically radically redefining the boundaries and nature of the social phenomenon of ‘individualism’ in today’s world.

Theoretically a person today can ‘cut and paste’ his individual self identity like a child plays with play dough.
‘On paper’ today’s individual is no longer forced to live his life in accord with the social behavioral norms, statuses and definition of the social space (network or group) into which he was born.

Today one can ‘wake up in the morning’ and be theoretically free to choose one’s  1) physical sexual gender  2) sexual identity preference  3) religious, or a- religious, belief system   4) country of dwelling   5) country of citizenship  6) ethnic-nationality cultural identification   7)  range of partner-marital statuses   8) structures of ‘family-home making-children raising’    8) time and ability to procreate   9) professional and employment type and status   10) the boundaries and nature of social relationships, whether in person, or over the social internet, and    11) when and whether to prolong life in case of terminal illness.

Theoretically a person today can ‘cut and paste’ his individual self identity like a child plays with play dough. Even those individuals locked into social discrimination and deprivation have social mobility options that their parents did not have.

This radical increase in potential social mobility is much less the result of governmental intervention or planned policies. Rather it is the result of technological and medical advancements, and the resulting globalization of economics, transportation, and interpersonal communication.

Radical social mobility creates powerful anxieties in both the liberal and conservative camps

I think we can objectively state that radical social mobility creates serious anxiety on both the individual and societal level.

On the individual level, not every individual has sufficient social, personal and psychological resources so that they can use the opportunities created by social mobility to attain a healthy, mature, satisfying degree of self fulfillment. Many end up too much alone, adrift, insecure, exploited by others, and travelling down too many detours and dead ends.

On the societal level, radical social mobility inevitably seriously weakens the authority, and the breadth and depth, of traditional communal bonds, of traditional knowledge and practice, of traditional family structure, and societal solidarity on a national level. Social structures that were built up over generations, suddenly crumble in a single generation, with nothing tragically available to replace them.

At this time in history, it is unclear whether this newly arrived radical social mobility is a blessing or curse.
We all find ourselves in a rapidly changing society. Our digitalized society has the potential of becoming a highly atomized society. The pleasure of increased individual freedom has the potential of becoming accompanied by much painful social insecurity and loneliness.

At this time in history, it is unclear whether this newly arrived radical social mobility is a blessing or curse. Liberals tend to see it as a blessing because it extends the boundaries and opportunities for human creativity. However ‘mature’ liberals also admit (under their breath) that it also contains the danger of increased social instability and personal insecurity..

Conservatives tend to see radical social mobility as a ‘curse’ because it seriously destabilizes traditional social frameworks. However, ‘mature’ conservatives also admit (under their breath) that the horse has escaped from the corral, and will not be returned, and that the social individualism of   the past, will not be the social individualism of the future

Summary: The anxieties of one ‘tribe’ are the aspirations of the other ‘tribe’

On the political-campaign level, the most important, disputed issues of the American election were probably multi-cultural and gender freedom and diversity, expanding supportive governmental educational and welfare programs, economic and business expansion, and controlling immigration.

However, this article argues that, on a more basic sociological level, the election was a conflict between very different strategies of coping with the radical social changes, (particularly that of increased individual social mobility), of the last three decades. The pathos and the viral emotions invoked by the campaign testify that the election touched upon, and opened up, very hardcore, gut social issues.

People voted their very personal, social self identities, based on their allegiance to a conservative, or liberal, path of coping with social change. In the end, the anxieties of one camp, turned out to be the aspirations of the other camp. The liberal camp aspires to use increased social mobility to maximize individual freedoms, and gender and ethnic diversity. However this creates great anxieties in the conservative camp because it threatens the traditional family, religious and national institutions that they believe sustain the spirit, morality and national solidarity that are required for maintaining a secure, healthy society. 

The conservative camp is slowly recognizing that increased social mobility has become built in to post modern society, and thus aspires to cautiously channel and regulate it so that it will invigorate, and not decimate, the traditional institutions of family, religion and nation. However the conservative aspiration to carefully regulate individual social mobility creates great anxiety among liberal because they fear that such regulation will turn into discrimination and oppression.

One thing is for certain. This explosive conflict between liberal and conservative mutual anxieties and aspirations is only beginning to heat up.