The objective/subjective disconnect: Reason, unreason, and the rise of illiberal populism

[A note to readers: I was going to post this on Facebook, where I share my thoughts on U.S. domestic politics, but I decided to post it here because it’s relevant to a longer post I’ve been working on comparing drivers of, and obstacles to, change in the late USSR with drivers and obstacles in Russia today.]

I just finished reading Kurt Anderson’s terrific and unnerving book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History). I highly recommend it, although you can get the gist of his argument in his December article in The Atlantic, “How America Went Haywire” here.

Anderson describes himself as “a liberal atheist” – which is to say, his faith is in reason. His core argument is that Americans have had a long-standing and widespread (and among advanced liberal democracies, uniquely widespread) commitment to unreason, and that the American cult of unreason, which today is mostly a pathology of the right but has plenty of adherents on the left, has spun out of control. He makes the case for two big drivers taking the U.S. down the rabbit hole: (1) a “profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the 1960s, whereby Americans ever since have had a new rule set in their mental operating systems, even if they’re certain they possess the real truth: do your own thing, find your own reality, do your own thing”; and (2) the Internet, where “believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists who share their beliefs…”

I don’t think Anderson’s explanatory claims are particularly interesting, novel, or compelling – they are part of the story, but only part. And while I suspect it’s true that the U.S. is exceptional among the major advanced liberal democracies in its enthusiasm for unreason (consider that Americans score much higher on religiosity), he doesn’t actually look at other countries – my guess is that the closer you look, the more unreason you’ll find. But what is interesting and convincing are his arguments about the prominence of “fantasy” in American history, and the extent to which we have gone full “fantasyland” in recent decades.

As I went through the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about the contrast between Anderson’s argument and the major theme of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I haven’t read it, I confess, but I’ve read plenty of reviews, including a number of highly critical ones. I also read his previous and related book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. So I’m comfortable asserting that Pinker’s core argument is that, by almost any objective measure, humanity is much better off today than is generally appreciated. He points to increased life expectancy, declining violent crime, declining numbers of people being killed by famine or war (in absolute and especially per capita terms), rising global incomes and wealth, the over-fulfillment of the eight Millennial Development Goals, and so on. Accordingly, the confidence in “progress” that characterized the Enlightenment was, and is, essentially correct, despite all the handwringing and angst. And this progress is largely thanks to the turn to reason and scientific thinking that defined the Age of Reason.

So what kept striking me as I read Fantasyland is that Pinker and Anderson, both ardent defenders of the Enlightenment (albeit Anderson a little less explicitly), are telling very different stories about its fate. One (Pinker) focuses mostly on objective factors (and with more of a global rather than U.S. orientation), arguing that thanks to the Enlightenment things are going pretty damn well on Planet Earth. The other (Anderson) focuses almost entirely on subjective factors (particularly in the U.S., but with obvious relevance to the rise of populism elsewhere), and he argues that reason is in deep trouble and suggests it’s unlikely to recover.

Whereas Pinker’s scoring, then, is mostly objective, Anderson’s is mostly subjective. He begins Fantasyland by pointing to surveys showing that only one-third of Americans believe that humans are causing global warning; only one-third are sure the story of creation in Genesis isn’t literally true; two-thirds believe that “angels and demons are active in the world”; one-third believe the U.S. government is colluding with big pharma to keep evidence of “natural” cancer cures from the public; one-quarter believe vaccines cause autism; and so on.

So we have subjective-objective disconnect, one that I think has lots of relevance to Trumpism and Western populism in general.

Like the great bulk of the people I know, I’m mortified by Trump, not just because I worry about potentially disastrous objective consequences, but because I think he dishonors the country and defiles the principles that, by my reading, this country stands for. But I also recognize that so far the objective costs of Trumpism have been pretty minimal for the country as whole. Certainly there are exceptions – the illegal immigrants being picked up and mistreated by ICE and other law enforcement officials, the victims of the increase in hate crimes, and so on. But I agree with my 91 year-old mother, who lived through World War II and Vietnam, and the urban riots and assassinations of the 1960s, that the country is going off the rails, and that the prospects of righting itself have never seemed more remote. And I feel that way despite the fact that objectively I’m no worse off than I was before – on the contrary, like most of my academic colleagues with retirement portfolios, I’ve benefitted from the stock market surge since November 2016, and at least in the short run from the Trump tax cuts. I also look around me and keep thinking that, objectively, so far things are proceeding pretty much as they have been – no big war, no financial meltdown, no recession, peaceful demonstrations without rioting, burning cities, or chaos in the streets, and so on.

For me, then, subjectively I’m much worse off than I was but objectively fine. Most of Trump’s base, or at least the electorally-key members of the white working class who voted for Obama and then switched to Trump, are by contrast subjectively better off (as best as we can tell from surveys) but only marginally better off, if better off at all, objectively (few, presumably have stock portfolios, and the pace of job creation has actually fallen off under Trump, although median wages are finally rising). So a particular case of the subjective-objective disconnect.

A related point: I don’t think we are going to see Trump’s approval numbers change much until his supporters suffer objective harm and conclude he’s responsible for their travails. That may well happen if his trade policy starts to hurt farmers in Iowa or factory workers in the mid-West. Or if we get into a big and costly war. Or if the Republicans go after middle-class entitlements (there are signs they are gearing up to use the deficits aggravated by the tax cut as an excuse to go after Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid). But I don’t think the subjective needle changes much, no matter how disgracefully Trump behaves, until and unless the objective needle does. In part, that’s because much of his base takes subjective pleasure in Trump poking his thumb in the eye of the elites that they resent (or loath). So its not that the subjective and objective are unrelated, but that the connection is complicated, often opaque, and sometimes slow to take effect.

That said, it’s also striking how quickly and radically Trump’s discourse about the state of the nation changed after he entered office. During his campaign, and dramatically in his inaugural address, he painted an extraordinarily bleak picture of contemporary America. The part of that speech that will remembered longest is the doubtless the following:

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Almost instantly after he arrived into office, and with very little basis in objective facts other than the stock market rally, that narrative changed 180 degrees. In his State of the Union address this year, for example, he claimed the following:

Over the last year, we have made incredible progress and achieved extraordinary success. We have faced challenges we expected, and others we could never have imagined. We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship. We endured floods and fires and storms. But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America’s soul, and the steel in America’s spine.

He seemingly can’t go 24 hours without telling us how great the country is doing thanks to his extraordinary leadership.

Again, the great bulk of his supporters appears to agree, despite the fact there hasn’t been any substantial improvement in their objective conditions, and despite the fact that there is every reason to believe that many will, eventually, suffer material harm, whether from a trade war, rising interest rates from a ballooning budget deficit and public debt, or cuts in healthcare and the other social programs they benefit from. (Why this is so is another question, but my take is that the widespread argument that much of this is driven by values polarization, or if you prefer “tribalism” and rooting for your tribe’s team, is correct – see, for example, the discussion in this NYT op-ed piece by Thomas Edsel here).

The big takeaway for me, then, is that the politically salient “objective-subjective” disconnect is even greater than I realized. Another is that subjective assessments of things like “is the country on the right path” can change rapidly and dramatically without obvious objective cause. That’s not to say that objective factors, and especially deeply-rooted structural ones (like globalization, say, or the Internet) don’t matter, or that they don’t eventually drive subjective ones much,or even most, of the time. But the objective and subjective don’t move in lock step, to say the least.