Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Self-Esteem, Group Status, and Comparison: Understanding US Politics Today

I have blogged here before about the insights of social identity theory, and I am returning to it because it is screaming right now.  How so?  Let's first consider the basics.

Social identity theory (as I learned via the work of Donald Horowitz) asserts that people's sense of self, their self-esteem, rides in large part on how they feel about the group with which they identify.  The logic of invidious comparison (my favorite academic phrase of all time) deduces (or induces?) that individuals will feel better about themselves if their group is doing better than other groups, and they will feel worse if their group is slighted or does worse.  And this can then get quite emotional, as people get quite upset when their self-esteem is being harmed.... perceived to be harmed is the key. 

The epiphany for me was the page in Horowitz's book that identified adjectives used around the world to describe "others"--groups other than one's own that either doing better or worse (advanced or backwards):

I found this persuasive for understanding ethnic conflict, but it can also be useful for explaining soccer riots.  The old Jerry Seinfield routine about rooting for laundry--the uniforms of a team, regardless of who is wearing them--is on target because one identifies with "our" team. 

This simple and not so simple insight (heaps of social psych I have not read on this) is very useful for understanding much around us today.

For instance, the crazy debate of the past few days has been folks who are upset about the NYT 1619 series--which marks the 400 anniversary of the start of slavery in North America with a bunch of pieces that elaborate on how much of today's politics, economics, and even traffic jams are the product of the past, particularly of slavery in the US.  Some folks are very, very upset.  Putting aside the ridiculousness of Newt Gingrich supposedly being upset by this (with the best twitter response of this or any era), some people are upset because they see it as a critique of white Americans.  By being critical of the founders of the US, by showing that racism is hard-wired into so many facets of American politics, society, and economics, the 1619 series is seen by members of a particular group as diminishing the value of that group and thus the self-esteem of its members.  If much of the success of white Americans relative to other groups is due to unfair advantages, and that is what slavery and its legacy has produced, then the members of that group will feel their self-esteem diminish.  They must attack those efforts that might make their group look bad. 

Yes, I am a white guy writing about this, but not all (sorry) white Americans share the same sense of their identity.  My identity and my self-esteem, like many other folks, does not ride or die on the sense of the United States as a white country.  Indeed, my self-esteem takes a hit when the US as a multiethnic country is attacked or undermined. The key is this: while others have some say in one's own identity (Nazis don't think I am white), the groups with whom one identifies is actually somewhat within the control of individuals.  This is how people can leave white supremacist organizations--they start to identify less with white people and more with some other group.  One does not have to be a Mets fan all of one's life (damn it), but it can be hard to see the world differently and identify differently. 

Things get complex because people have multiple identities (this is where intersectionality comes in), and often one identity has more salience than others. One of the events of the past week that truly annoyed me from an outside perspective was to see the Log Cabin Republicans re-endorse Donald Trump. This group consists of gay Republicans, and it is abundantly clear that Trump has been awful to the LGBTQ community.  These individuals, well, most of them, find it more important to identify as Republican than as LBGTQ apparently.   

Similarly, in the election of 2016, we saw many non-Muslim Indian Americans line up in favor of Trump because they shared a common animus--Muslims.  It is not so much that the group had the same identity as Trump, but both they and Trump felt better as Muslims in the US were marginalized.  Some Indian Americans may be re-thinking that now as it turns out that white supremacists hate not just Muslims but Indians. 

The larger point here is that we are seeing various people lash out against criticisms of their group because they feel their own status, their own sense of self, is diminished. 

How to combat the dynamics of social identity?  Cross-cutting cleavages used to be a favorite--that it is ok to have different identities as long as people are not always divided into the same groups.  That is, it is better if class, race, and party are not always dividing a place into the same sub-groups.  Political polarization is so dangerous precisely because everyone now is either in group a or group b.  Having racially, religiously, linguistically diverse parties reduces the tensions because not every political decision implicates one's identity.  The Republicans as a largely white, predominantly evangelical party are more likely to have to suffer from the identity dynamics because the fortunes of the party are connected to these groups' sense of self.  The failure of Democrats to win an office (hmm, the Mets seem to come to mind again) may or may not have a big emotional impact as the identities of its members are not so lined up with the party.  It might suck to lose, but it does not feel as much of an insult to the identities of atheists or non-orthodox Jews or LGBTQ or other members of this plural coalition because it is not so much about any individual group.  For the Republicans lately, any defeat is a defeat for whites and for evangelicals.  Which is why this is so much more of a blood sport for one party than another.

It is usually seen that the multiethnic party is at a disadvantage compared to the monoethnic party in the game of outbidding--that the monoparty can peel off voters of the same identity from the multiethnic party.  These days, those voters are called white working class in the US.  But perhaps the multiethnic party is better off in this competition for not being so easily captured and tied to a random outbidder precisely because they simply don't have as much invested in the party's well-being.  That is, to say it as ruthlessly as I can, the GOP is now a bunch of cultists tied to Trump.  The Democrats are too diverse to be quite as chained to any leader and especially one as awful as Trump.

This might make it hard to win elections, but it makes me feel good.  See, I am subject to social identity dynamics.

No comments: