Post- Trump victory America is indeed becoming a somewhat weird place. There is, of course, alt-right people coming out, and weird people in the government. But there is something else.
I have been a long time defender of the idea of political correctness in public debate. PC is a deprecated concept, but as most social institutions, it fulfills a function. It regulates relationships. It establishes minimal rules of respects. It works as a fire alarm when you are touching a delicate subject. I am mostly happy, for example, with discussions about the role of genes in social success been considered as a out of the public debate. I have myself struggled for a long time to understand what heritability actually means -in terms of causality or its (ir)relevance for public policy- and I don’t think much can come from people misunderstanding the topic. Pretty much the same goes for gender. I am mostly OK with the blank slate idea being the official truth given what I think is the alternative. As James Tobin allegedly once told to Robert Nozick ‘There is nothing more dangerous than a philosopher that has read a bit of economics’.
The day after the election I was in a graduate seminar on American politics. Most people were devastated. Some were crying. We spent a large portion of the class doing therapy about the election results from a purely political point of view. I don’t think I really need to reiterate that no one, again, no one, except perhaps the color person in the class, has more reasons to be concerned about the result in the election than me, foreign-born socialist. Yet, I was struck by the fact that it was taking for granted that everyone in the room was strongly anti-Trump. In my mind, this is somehow a break of a basic social rule of respect. You don’t assume that other people think like you. And if you engage them, you do it respectfully.
The post-election in my environment has been a reflection of that same situation. People have demonstrated on campus. I have got emails from the university asking us to be strong. In general, there is a huge, brutal, violation of neutrality in the public space and a denial of legitimacy to what seems to me be the result of a democratic process.
Why does this happen? My conjecture is that we live in a bubble. Since I started to become interested in Americans politics, I have made the effort of asking people if they knew of someone who planned to vote for Trump. No one did. At two degrees of separation from me, there is no one willing to acknowledge that they are part of the almost 50% of Americans who elected that guy. No one knew Trump voters and, for that reasons, we underestimated what could be understood from surveys.
In social science there is that strange fine line between understanding and justifying, and I think I cross it too often. Some day I may become a moral void. But I somehow feel very uncomfortable with the standard view on why Trump won (‘racism’ ‘liberal elite contempt’ ‘politics of resentment’, ‘losers from globalization’). I feel all these narratives are morally tainted. They are not informative.
And here goes the thing: it’s hard to dispute them. People have strong feelings about Trump. Democracy, and especially academia even more, is supposed to be about having a certain degree of openness to understand the other.