It’s the Self-Esteem, Stupid
My favorite professor in college (University of Pennsylvania, 1967) was Lee Benson. He was my favorite professor because he taught me the most useful thing I learned in college: the importance of self-esteem in human activity and, therefore, human history.
Prof. Benson taught a course on the American Civil War. His main thesis was that the war was fought largely because the self-esteem of Southern politicians demanded they defend their honor. The peculiar institution on which their wealth was built had been made illegal in parts of the country, and it was under constant moral attack, implying a growing national consensus that those who practiced it were evil. That notion could not stand. We really do want to like ourselves.
Donald Trump lets ordinary Americans like themselves. He says, expressly and by example, that it’s ok to be ordinary, ok to resent holier-than-thou scolds, ok to think women and non-WASP men should know their place. When was the last time a Democrat treated the salt of the earth crowd with the respect all self-respecting people demand (whether or not they deserve it)? Hillary certainly didn’t. Hillary was a scold, supported by scolds. For all its cool, “woke” (as appropriated by Whites) just means “better than you” in a particular way. People needn’t be forgiven for defending the indefensible, but, as Chris Rock said about OJ, we don’t have to condone an action to understand it. No one goes into the voting booth thinking “I’m gonna vote for the candidate who thinks I’m a benighted piece of shit.”
The best politicians are aspirational. They offer us the chance to be proud of ourselves for releasing our better angels. But we haven’t had an aspirational Democrat since Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an aspirational leader. He looked forward to a better day, without dwelling on the “isms” of the sinful. If politics is the art of the possible, then it must be the art of getting people to change their ways without believing that they are bad people for having had the ways that need changing. I remember an ad The Peace Corps used to run in the New York City subway: The trick isn’t getting the natives to dig the well; the trick is getting them to believe digging the well was their idea. The ad does not trade on any special characteristics of Peace Corps clients. Natives are natives, wherever they live.
The role of self-esteem in electoral politics is not overt. People may say they are voting for a populist demagogue because “I like his ideas,” but they don’t have the information to judge his ideas, so something else must be going on. What they have is a special kind of confirmation bias. If a guy who says it’s ok to be like me says it’s ok to put tariffs on steel, then it must be ok to put tariffs on steel, because he was certainly right about it being ok to be like me. Populists often emerge when the people are feeling badly about themselves. And in a two-party system, the demagogue is helped if the other party’s whole raison d’etre seems to be to make “people like me” feel bad about being people like me.
If I were running for President, I’d give serious thought to “Do America Proud” as my campaign slogan. America doesn’t need to be great again. America needs to be good again. We haven’t been good in quite some time, and the longer we spend being bad, the more tempting it is for scolds to try to shame us into action. Only, the action they shame us into is the short-cut to ending shame: electing someone shameless. How to make voters feel good about rejecting the man who made them feel good about rejecting Hillary is the challenge the Democrats — the challenge that anyone who cares about whether America remains true to Americanism — must face.
It will not be easy.