The Role Of Fear And Identity In Uncertain Times

I think it’s important to understand how politics can be driven by fear.  That’s a common criticism of politics, but dismissing something as fear-driven is an easy way out that isn’t justified.  Fear-driven politics is a very normal thing and contrary to those who dismiss it, it’s very rational. It has a lot to do with how identity affects group action in times of trouble.

People can and do have multiple sides to their identities.  In fact, not having multiple layers of identity would make for an alarmingly one-dimensional person.  This means that people within one group identity – Americans, say – can have many different additional identities they don’t share with all other Americans.  Identity in a population is like an endless venn diagram of overlapping circles.  

In the good times people may be aware of the potential identity conflicts, but they don’t care that much because there are no issues likely to erupt into conflict. This is true even if there is low-level antagonism occuring.  People will be irritated, but know that nothing is going to happen while everything is going well because people have too much to lose. No one will rock the boat while things are going well, and one sub-group is likely to be willing to make concessions to another when the future looks bright.  They don’t want to put a brake on the forward progress. This is the situation where we are all Americans together, regardless of our differences. But problems can naturally arise in times of stress. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s much more likely and it will depend on the details.

This stress could be a natural disaster, economic downturn, or terrorist attack.  When there is a feeling that there may not be enough to go around or that people may have to look out for themselves, a natural process begins to occur.  People become more conscious of their own identities and those of others. This is done instinctively because our identity will drive our values and choices.  When hard decisions are being made we have to pay careful attention to identity – who is like us, and who isn’t – in order to understand the priority between those identities.  We use this awareness in order to make trade-offs ourselves and to predict what others will do. 

In any conflict between different parts of an individual’s facets of identity, one aspect often wins because it is more important to that person generally, or at least because it is more affected by the problem at hand.  I am a very athletic and health-conscious person, but my identity as a family man comes first – I would skip a workout or pull an all-nighter eating junk food and drinking coffee if there was a reason my family needed it.  Everyone has tradeoffs like this. Am I an engineer or a Christian first? An American, or a Texan? A woman, or a white person, or a middle-class person, or a blue-collar worker? Am I a socialist, black, man, immigrant, native?  

We all do this all the time – any time we make a major decision we may be taking into account our views of ourselves and where we fit into society.  These things affect our values and our goals. But the worse things get around us, the more we need to think about it ahead of time. We also start to double-down on the main things while letting the identities less important to us slide.  This is to help prepare us for touch decisions and to find people we can depend on.

Everyone needs to do this so they can react to situations where they may have to choose one way or the other.  At the same time everyone makes the same evaluation of the other people in their society. What is my best guess about the priority of identity for these different people?  What will they do in a critical situation, and why will they do it? Do I think this person will make decisions that will hurt me because some other identity is much more important to him than whatever we share?  

This is where people who used to live harmoniously can start to have conflict.  People that used to work together in the same community – sharing these identities – can suddenly have serious problems if a new situation reveals that difference racial or religious groups have different goals on issues important to all.  A peaceful society tries to reach compromises on these issues so as to not totally disrupt the good things going. 

Unfortunately In hard times, the most rational thing is to stick with people that share your most fundamental identities.  Trust is harder in a situation of scarcity and uncertainty, but people need each other more than ever. To overcome this people surround themselves with people more like them because those are people who will be affected by events in a similar way. Therefore we hope they will have similar goals in the outcomes.  We can’t control events, but at least we can distance ourselves from the people who may not have our best interests at heart.

Because of this societies face turning points that can break previous peace.  It might be an economic downturn – the more people believe the future will permanently have fewer opportunities than in the past, the more they will start to distrust each other as they prepare for competition.  When some old institution collapses in the political sphere, people may realize they have very different needs and wants concerning what comes next that didn’t matter when everyone was used to the old reality.   

The people can either rally together or a decline in trust begins.  It depends on what the population realizes about their most important identities.  If the general feeling is that most people share the same fundamental identities despite their differences, or at least that the various fundamental identities have no significant conflict on the issue at hand, then society can pull together even in the worst circumstances.  History is full of examples of people helping strangers in the face of invasions or disasters despite enormous differences. On the other hand, history is also full of examples of multicultural societies where conflicts between different groups lay dormant for decades or even centuries, and then violently erupt after a government scandal, war, or economic collapse.  Part of the reason that the most moving outpourings of aid come in natural disasters is that it lessens identity conflicts more than anything else. It’s a one-time event that comes from outside the social context and could happen to anybody. There’s no different Muslim or Christian need in the face of an earthquake, and we all recognize this. But we also recognize that there are different needs when the question or crisis is a human one to start with. 

This is much more of a danger for large and diverse societies than smaller ones.  Japan is Japan and Liechtenstein is Liechtenstein in rich times and in poor. But countries like India, America, Yugoslavia, Syria, or Mexico continually face much more social conflict and sometimes it breaks them.  Too much diversity can make it almost impossible to weather severe crises. To clarify what I mean here – I mean too much diversity of the most fundamental identity and loyalty.  A country doesn’t have to all be the same color, or religion, or ethnic background.  But they do have to agree on the foundational philosophies of their society. What do people consider to be their most important self?  If these are mostly the same then people may be able to work through almost anything despite apparent differences. If we are all American before we are anything else – and we generally agree what the ‘American Way’ is – we can work almost anything out by discussing how to apply that way in the new situation.  But if we all owe our fundamental loyalty to different groups or ideas of America then we are in trouble.

Is our identity as Americans more important than our other identities to most us, or are we fundamentally different groups that just happen to be living in America together?  Do we have the same understanding of what an ‘American’ identity is? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that not being able to say “Of course we all agree what America is” is a serious problem we are facing.

The US has spent more than half a century in relative prosperity since the end of the Second World War.  At the same time, the US faced outside threats for most of the 20th century that were non-divisive. All major racial, religious, and political identities in the US were threatened by Fascist or Communist systems of totalitarianism.  This combination of rising prosperity and basic shared threats enabled the US to work through some periodic economic crises and even major internal conflicts like the Civil Rights movement. We came to compromises as Americans together and we kept going.

But over the last two or three decades the consensus has been fraying.  On the one hand the outside enemies are gone. We have rivals now, but they don’t frighten everyone the same way.  China makes nationalists nervous due to the potential for military conflict as China starts to throw its weight around, capitalists salivate due to the fortunes to be made, and the working class is furious as their livelihoods are destroyed.  Internally things have changed as well. For most of the 20th century the only significant groups in American society were White (mostly northern european) Christians and Black Christians. Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Jewish Americans existed too but were all small fractions of the population.  Things are different today. We now have many non-religious people of all colors, many new religions, and entirely new identity groups like sexual and gender politics. Also we have more ethnicities now – immigration changes in the 70s mean that much larger Latino, South Asian, and East Asian communities exist compared to the past.

At the same time the society has been subject to a lot of stress driven by globalization and runaway libertarian capitalism.  The gap between social classes is growing rapidly and becoming more of an impassable barrier. The economic gap between rural and urban or between different regions of the country has grown to historic levels too.  Open borders and open trade have powerful and very different effects on different groups of people. Environmental issues and social norms are under constant discussion and also affect different people differently.

All this has greatly complicated things.  When everyone was mostly the same and social mobility was easy, questions were simpler.  Should we live up to our own stated ideals and let African-Americans join mainstream working and middle class society?  Should women be let into the workforce? These were difficult confrontations, but ones discussed in what was overall a much more unified environment.  Today there are many more voices in play, and issues that are less clear cut.

So far the result has seemed to be fear.  Americans do not trust that their fellow citizens share enough of the fundamental identities to make it safe to work together.  Instead we are starting to act as though the thing we have most to fear is other Americans.

This can be seen in several ways.  Steve Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book “How Democracies Die” chronicles the importance of the unwritten rules of government.  A government system functions not only because of the written rules, but because politicians abide by the spirit of them and work together according to the unwritten rules of fair play.  This is a healthy system where everyone expects there to be another election and that the winners will treat them fairly until that next turn. When that starts to break down its a sign that there is no trust between parties.  The author shows how this has happened over the last generation or so in the US – changing filibustering rules, overuse of executive orders, underhanded tactics around the Supreme Court nominations.  

The reason this so clearly illustrates the problem I describe above is that there is no one culprit in their book.  It isn’t the Republicans breaking the system and the Democrats defending, or vice versa. Each time Party A screams bloody murder when Party B is in power and does something no one dared to do before. Then when Party A is in power, instead of changing things back it uses the same tricks again and goes one step further.  These are the actions of parties that don’t trust the other side to uphold the basic integrity of the system. And once the spiral is started, both are justified in that fear by pointing to what the other side has already done.  They both think they are the good guys because of the frightening things the other side has done.

We can see similar evidence in the issues being discussed and the way they are discussed.  Name-calling, insults, and accusations of criminal behavior are unthinkable in a system with high trust, but work when enough people genuinely don’t trust the other side.  The survey results tracking ever-polarizing identities and the degree of trust in the other side tell the same story.

The first step to being part of stopping this decline is to recognize that everyone is being genuine and sincere.  In this situation it is easy to believe that your side are the good guys protecting themselves from the bad guys. But the other side believes the same thing with equal justification. The poor whites, or poor blacks, or pro-life, or pro-choice, etc. aren’t being dishonest and aren’t using ‘coded language’ to hide sinister intent.  They are telling the truth about what’s happening to them as they see it. We need to meet people here – we can disagree with them while acknowledging their sincerity.

Someone has to be willing to take the first visible step back.   In the case of politicians, they need to campaign honestly and cleanly, and follow the rules.  They need to acknowledge when the other side has a point, even if they don’t get the same courtesy.  This is terrifying because it seems like the other side will take advantage of it. If you’re an ordinary person, discuss the issues of the day without saying or believing that the other side is evil.  Don’t have a fight, have a discussion. You may have to keep self-control when the other person doesn’t and keep engaging. But keeping your own self-control in the face of another person’s anger is a powerful tool to build trust with that person because it shows them that even if they don’t understand you, you are willing to talk to them.

But without someone taking a genuine risk of trust, no calls to stop will be convincing.

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