Is the white working class ready to trade in some of their whiteness?

One of the major narratives about working-class white Americans - white people without college degrees - has been that they vote against their economic interests. They have shifted to the right since the mid-1990s and support policies that may preserve their cultural identity but do little to address their economic downslide. Restricting abortion is a winning issue with them, but not raising the minimum wage. Banning critical race theory is a top priority, but not universal health care.

Consider Barack Obama’s infamous 2008 remarks about Midwestern working-class voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

I imagine that Obama regrets the language used here. But I believe he was essentially correct. Midwestern working-class voters (implied here is that the voters are white) are struggling economically, and instead of pushing their representatives to address those economic concerns, they turn their attention to issues of culture and identity.

READ MORE: When Democrats talk like sexists so they don't sound like racists

In the 2016 election, for example, data suggests that “fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.”

In a prior piece of mine, I described the (white) American story. Let me repeat it here:

America is a unique 'city on a hill' founded on Christian faith and Western principles. Husband-led nuclear families, given the freedom to farm and build businesses, spread out across this land and turned it into the greatest nation on earth. There have been some injustices along the way, but Americans have corrected those mistakes. The history of the United States is primarily one of economic, scientific, and moral progress. You succeed based on what you and your family can do. Social support from the government is unnecessary, and 'isms' like racism or sexism are so rare as to be unworthy of mention.

This is what working-class Americans are trying to preserve, trying to remake. And they voted for a president in the last two elections who promised to do just that.

This story does not explicitly mention race. But the brush strokes of Christian faith, western principles, rejection of government assistance for the disadvantaged, and a rejection of racism paint that picture clearly.

READ MORE: ‘A deeper civic purpose’: Author explains why Ron DeSantis’ views on Black studies are dead wrong

Conservative working-class white Americans are voting for their racial identity instead of class identity. These are the “wages of whiteness,” described by sociologist WEB Du Bois.

Whiteness wages

Du Bois was a Black sociologist working in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a co-founder of the NAACP. He put forth an explanation as to how wealthy whites in the south convinced poor southern whites to vote against their economic interests. Du Bois argued that whiteness was a form of compensation – a benefit of being a member of the dominant racial group. Poor white people voted for the identity of being white, and the status and privileges that go along with it.

And so, as Joshua Zeitz wrote in his excellent piece:

In most Southern states, poor whites and wealthy whites forged a coalition that overthrew biracial Reconstruction governments and passed a raft of laws that greatly benefited plantation and emerging industrial elites at the expense of small landowners, tenant farmers and factory workers.

Zeitz goes on to argue that Trump voters in 2016 were voting for their racial identity. As Thomas Frank opined in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which he chronicled the rightward shift of the white working class in the state in which he grew up.

But there is some evidence now that the white working class is willing to trade in “some” of those whiteness wages for actual economic ones.

Trading in the wages of whiteness

In a recent episode of the PBS show Firing Line, host Margaret Hoover interviewed Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The interview was about Continetti’s recent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.

In the interview, Continetti mentioned some facts I was aware of, but never considered seriously. He points out that white college degree holders have fled the Republican Party. The trend that Continetti points out, this “diploma divide,” has been ongoing since at least the 2000 presidential election and has been discussed in many outlets.

But Continetti draws a reasonable conclusion that less educated - and presumably less economically well-off - voters in the Republican Party will be less concerned with the traditional Republican issues of limiting government and entitlement reform. Instead, he says, they will want those entitlements. They are going to want their Medicare and social security. And some polls suggest that they are beginning to want universal health care, with disapproval among Republicans as a whole declining.

This dynamic will play out most among older voters.

Economic necessity will compel this group to include in their “City on a Hill” appearances from Uncle Sam. If Continetti is right, then the well-worn strategy by GOP leaders of tying entitlements to people of color, and instead urging their poorer constituents to vote for tax cuts that favor “job creators” (read: the wealthy) may fall flat.

This would be a remarkable change, as so much of whiteness has been connected to rejecting government assistance, even as that assistance can save lives. The paradigmatic work on this phenomenon is Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Moreover, white working-class millennials are more secular and liberal than their older counterparts. They are also less likely to identify as conservative, even as they vote Republican. This looks like the makings of a different cohort of white working-class voters, with profound consequences in the future.

Some have made the argument that these changes among younger white working-class voters will lead to them abandoning the GOP and embracing progressive causes.

I am not ready to go that far. But at least this group, being more secular and liberal, is rejecting the white Christian nationalist focus currently dominating the party. This rejection may occur even as they continue to embrace fiscal conservatism. In other words, this is a pro-business and pro-small government voter who is not as eager to organize their politics so tightly around whiteness and the platforming of white Christian heterosexual norms.

They won’t be freaked out about the growing presence of queer persons in society. They won’t have an irrational stance towards immigration where they imagine a viable wall can be built stretching across our southern border, keeping out a brown horde they imagined. They won’t be so keen on passing draconian abortion laws. If another Black person is again elected president, it won’t suggest to them that they are losing “their” country.

Trends suggest that younger white working-class Americans, as well as their older counterparts, are willing to trade in some of their wages of whiteness for real economic benefits.

This has the potential to improve the economic fortunes of all Americans.

READ MORE: Affirmative action isn’t discrimination. It’s politics right-wing justices abhor and will strike down

What Ye's antisemitism teaches us about right-wing hate speech

The gift of Ye

It’s showing us some ways in which the right understands hate speech and the calculation that goes into condemning it.

One of the easily understood and fun activities in a sociology class is the “breaching experiment.” The purpose of the breaching experiment, introduced by late sociologist Harold Garfinkel, is to illustrate the taken-for-granted informal rules that we live by in our daily lives.

READ MORE: Trump’s Dinner with Kanye also included a former aide accused in pay-for-pardon play

Imagine this:

You go into a store that gives free samples. There is no sign anywhere saying that samples are one per customer. Indeed, you see customers take a sample and come back a few minutes later to grab another. So you decide to stand there and eat all the samples. You may even talk with the server as you wait patiently for them to replace the ones you’ve just eaten.

What would happen in that scenario?

You’d get the side-eye by customers – even the same customers you just saw come back for seconds! You might be asked to stop eating samples, to which you could mention there’s no sign saying one per person. At some point, a manager would be called. You’d be asked to leave the store.

READ MORE: Trump claims he 'knew nothing about' white supremacist who he and Kanye West dined with at Mar-a-Lago

Why all the fuss? Who gives a damn about some free samples that are probably just overstocked items the store wants to move anyway.

Because you breached an unwritten rule governing how we interact. It feels wrong to the people who witness it. The task is to figure out what’s been breached, usually by getting people to explain why the breach feels wrong.

Kanye West, hereafter “Ye,” is a walking breaching experiment.

He’s an internationally known, independently wealthy megastar who is now spewing antisemitic rhetoric in public spaces. Whether public utterances are because he’s going through mental health issues is up for debate. Of interest here is his breaches and what his behavior mean for others.

Ye has given us a gift. the Right frequently attacks progressives for their willingness to label many phrases and symbols as hate speech. Here is Ye doing something that, for people on the left and right, feels wrong.

If it hurts me and mine

The rapper tweeted recently a photo of a swastika inside the Star of David. The tweet was deleted, and Elon Musk – the new owner of Twitter – suspended Ye’s account. The suspension was not by way of a formal process of report and review but done ad-hoc. Musk simply chose to suspend the account. Musk said Ye “violated our rule against incitement to violence.”

So much about this did not make sense to me, initially.

For one thing, hate speech has gone up since Musk’s takeover. What makes this tweet worthy of Musk’s ordering Ye’s account suspended? What line did this tweet cross that other forms of hate speech do not? Are other images of a swastika inside the Star of David deleted from Twitter? I’d say no, as there are many copies of Ye’s tweet still on the platform.

More puzzling is a comment Musk made on Twitter Spaces about his decision: “I personally wanted to punch Kanye, so that was definitely inciting me to violence. That’s not cool.” Um, wait a minute!

I thought the whole “incitement to violence” justification was because the antisemitic violence was aimed at Jewish people – not Elon Musk.

It gets more confusing when we consider Musk’s handling of an equally polarizing figure, though much less famous, James Lindsay.

Lindsay popularized the phrase “OK groomer.” Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter deemed it hate speech. It links being queer to pedophilia. Lindsay’s continued use led to him being permanently banned. Musk reinstated Lindsay’s account, and Lindsay promptly continued using the phrase.

This is free speech now, I guess.

The only answer I can come to is that Musk sees hate speech not through the lens of a vulnerable group possibly being attacked because of the speech. Instead, he sees hate speech through a lens of personal grievance.

If the speech hurts him or someone he cares about, it’s hate speech. If the speech is directed elsewhere, no matter how vulnerable, it’s free speech.

Will I lose votes?

Recently Donald Trump invited Ye, along with nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes to his Mar-a-Lago estate for a pre-Thanksgiving meal.

The meeting was ripped by Republican darling and likely next Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting was “not merely unacceptable, it’s just wrong,” said Netanyahu recently on “Meet the Press.”.

Some members of the GOP spoke out. “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy,” said Mitch McConnell. “Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, is highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”

Few would disagree, but my next thought was not be how dining with someone spewing hate speech impacts a person’s career advancement. That would be farther down the line after thinking about what the dinner means for the group that the speech affects. You know, actual Jews.

For Republican lawmakers, hate speech is more about what a condemnation means politically than what it means for a vulnerable group. The “credit” of disavowing hate speech must be balanced alongside the “debit” of cozying up to the GOP’s most popular VIP or not alienating similarly minded voters.

PBS asked 57 GOP lawmakers if they condemn the dinner. The response was far from universal, with a surprising number either not responding or performing some type of political calculation. Consider this grammatically incorrect but illustrative response from Senator John Thune: “Well, that’s just a bad idea on every level. I don’t know who is — who’s advising him on his staff, but I hope that whoever that person was got fired.”

The right’s understanding

The gift of Ye, if we can call it that, is showing us ways in which the right understands hate speech and the calculation that goes into condemning it.

Ye put antisemitism out in the open, forcing people to put their down dog whistles and to stop with the obfuscatory deliberations on what free speech means for democracy. They had to make a choice in context.

Ye as breach experiment shows the right seeing hate speech through an individual, egocentric lens. That’s a subversion of what hate speech should be about: recognizing the link between words and violence and the need to protect vulnerable minorities by placing boundaries on that speech.

That is not how the right sees it.

For many people on the right, the decision of condemning hate speech begins and ends with their own personal interests.

READ MORE: Vandals cite Kanye West in antisemitic graffiti attack on century-old Jewish cemetery

Anxious Americans are putting prices over principles

Tom Nichols tweeted recently that America “is facing the greatest danger to its constitutional system since at least the 1950s, if not the 1850s, and millions of people are like: Yeah, but gas, man.”

The Atlantic’s senior editor was expressing what many on the left feel. Americans are willing to vote for GOP candidates who may change the country in disastrous ways. The government programs we rely on - Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – are seen as “entitlements” by Republicans and are on their chopping block.

State legislatures have passed laws curtailing abortion rights and preventing teachers from talking about racism and gender fluidity.

READ MORE: The face of liberal democracy’s enemy is white

GOP leaders have admitted that they want to make it harder for people to vote, with Mitch McConnell saying that, “If we don't do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country." I could go on, but this is enough.

Oh wait, one more.

Some Republican are tired of this separation of church and state nonsense and say that the church should “direct the government.”

“But gas, man.”

READ MORE: Republicans would rather tank the global economy than stop corporations from destroying the planet

According to several polls, Americans are most concerned with inflation and are willing to ignore major red flags with GOP candidates, believing they are better at managing the economy.

This is a hierarchy of needs issue, with concrete and immediate concerns outweighing abstract and distal ones. This is not new, and many a politician has been ousted because they happen to be in office during an economic downturn. But something’s different here.

If the midterms go as predicted, it will be understood as a repudiation of the Biden administration and its focus on “woke” politics. This explanation does not fit reality. It would be patently false given the administration’s attempts to pass a robust Build Back Better bill aimed squarely at low-income earners’ pocketbooks.

But I would like to venture another explanation: our nation is wallowing in growing economic inequality, weak social services, rising healthcare costs, unsteady gig jobs and weak labor unions.

We are a working-class country. Our citizens will be increasingly drawn to politicians who present emotional appeals offering to assuage the anxieties associated with economic insecurity.

Globally, America is one of the higher-income nations as measured by median income. Objectively speaking, we seem to be doing well. But this is a matter of perspective – not raw numbers.

When your grandparents and parents moved through a world of economic security and capital accumulation, and here you are struggling to pay rent, burdened with college loan and worried that you are a few unforeseen medical bills away from bankruptcy, that $50,000 per year salary doesn’t seem like a whole lot.

This anxiety can make people receptive to emotional appeals from politicians claiming to identify with them, creating scapegoats to direct their pain toward, and then making empty promises to alleviate that anxiety. Scholars (including me) have been using this to explain the rise of Trump and MAGA populism on the right.

But I am talking about a recharacterization of what the soul of America as a nation is right now. I am talking about extending the MAGA explanation outward to all of us. We are not a nation of middle-class strivers that made us the envy of the world. We are an anxious people now. That means we will put prices over principles.

The Times’ David Brooks, on why Republicans are surging:

GOP candidates are telling a very clear class/culture/status war narrative in which commonsense Americans are being assaulted by elite progressives who let the homeless take over the streets, teach sex ed to 5-year-olds, manufacture fake news, run woke corporations, open the border and refuse to do anything about fentanyl deaths and the sorts of things that affect regular people. In other words, candidates … wrap a dozen different issues into one coherent class war story.

I might quibble with some of the examples Brooks gives. Do Republicans talk that much about fentanyl deaths? Is fake news still a viable topic post-Trump? But I agree with the general point that Republicans are on the ascendant, because of a false narrative that Democrats ignore the concerns of everyday people.

Never mind that the ultimate cause of economic insecurity in the United States can be tied to Republican initiatives. They are antagonistic to unions – the presence of which has historically been associated with higher incomes and job benefits, like healthcare and maternity leave. They resist investment in social services. Programs that fund childcare do not put money directly into the hands of people but decrease family outlays, freeing up money for other purposes. For the past 50 years, they have championed a tax regime that would supposedly lift all boats by cutting taxes on the rich. All it did was sink the middle class and buy the wealthy a few more yachts. Never mind all that.

These explanations are vague and academic and do not resonate with something as clear and immediate as “your gas prices have gone up. Vote in the other guy, and they will go down.” It is the difference, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, between hard-to-talk-about systemic causes and easily grasped direct causes.

So there is work to be done in terms of developing a compelling economic narrative.

But we know the problem – economic insecurity. We know the solution – Democrat policies. We know how to communicate - a narrative that speaks to the anxieties of working-class America.

Yes, the Democrats will likely be licking their wounds after these midterms. But there is hope here. When so many are working class, so many Americans are potential Democrats.

We could be on the precipice of a generational shift, where people – especially younger people who are more likely to feel economic anxiety – are more receptive to old-style “look out for the little man” Democratic politics.

Let’s talk about raising the minimum wage. Let’s talk about supporting unions. Let’s talk about increasing the salaries of civil service workers. Let’s talk about taxing the wealthy and having them pay their fair share.

I have a strong belief that in a working-class America, common Republican scare tactics of labeling any reform as socialism will begin to fall flat.

And who knows?

In the process, we might elect enough politicians to keep our voting rights, abortion rights and Medicare.

READ MORE: Bernie Sanders says Democrats should hammer the 'corporate agenda of the Republicans'

By lifting debt burdens, Joe Biden unleashes the democratic spirit

President Biden’s student loan relief plan would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loans for borrowers. Individuals making less than $125,000 per year, and married couples making less than $250,000 can have up to $10,000 in relief. If the individual received a Pell Grant, they can have an additional $10,000 in relief.

Biden’s plan has been met, predictably, with support and opposition.

Supporters are in agreement with the primary narrative used by the administration – many borrowers are struggling with either debt or default, and forgiveness would provide relief. They point out the hypocrisy of people who are opposing forgiveness but nonetheless received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness.

READ MORE: Polls: Joe Biden jumps while Donald Trump slumps

In a surprising and funny move, the White House communications office tweeted the loan amounts several detractors had forgiven.

Meanwhile, of many critiques, two are the strongest.

One is about fairness, exemplified by Mitch McConnell’s commenting that forgiveness is a “slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt.”

Still others argue that it will exacerbate current levels of inflation. Conservative economists have argued this. But so have other prominent centrist Democrats such as Larry Summers and Jason Furman. Furman, former chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, tweeted: “Pouring roughly half trillion dollars of gasoline on the inflationary fire that is already burning is reckless.”

READ MORE: Forgiven student loan debt could be taxed in some states: report

Helping people who need help

I was at first tepid about the plan. Then I opposed it. I thought the arguments about fairness were right. This is, I think, a normal human reaction when other people seem to be playing by other rules.

Even so, I think it’s the right thing to do. Why?

Because of who is getting the relief.

The typical student loan borrower is not a medical or law school graduate who owes six figures but stands to make millions.

Instead, according to the Center for American Progress, most borrowers owe less than $10,000 and they did not graduate.

An analysis from the Wharton School of Businesses estimates that about three-quarters of the households benefiting from Biden’s plan make $88,000 or less. The US Department of Education, as quoted from a White House fact sheet, estimates that about 90 percent of relief will go to individuals making less than $75,000 a year.

This understanding was fundamental to changing my view.

You see, for wealthier Americans, paying a student loan debt is beneficial. It frees up money for them to invest in other endeavors.

But for moderate and low-income people – the vast majority of student loan borrowers – being relieved of their debt allows them to participate more fully in American society.

And there is research to back up this claim.

In a study from 2016, scholars found that student loan borrowers have difficulty meeting basic needs and managing finances. Of the 3,318 people sampled for their research, “Over half … experienced one or more [financial] hardships in the six months after filing their taxes, such as skipping a rent payment.”

A more recent study looked at borrowers during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Researchers found that people with student loan debt had elevated amounts of financial stress during that time.

Measures of financial stress include being unable to pay mortgages, pay their credit card balances or having to take out a payday loan.

The researchers also found, in what is a common theme in these studies, that financial stress was more likely for nonwhite people.

The above studies used survey data to arrive at their conclusions. But nothing replaces hearing people in their own words.

A study published this year interviewed 105 young people carrying loan debt. They talked about their difficulty finding employment, paying their student loans and getting their lives started.

One college graduate, with $100,000 in debt, said: “I’ve cried … I try to be a man and not cry, but I’ve broken down some and uh, yeah, I’m pretty worried about defaulting on some of the payments.”

Another young person said she was “frustrate[d] because now I’m $50,000 in student loans and now, I wanna get married and it’s like, do I want to transfer $50,000 in debt into my marriage?”

How to restart a life

These studies resonate with me.

I hold student loans, although I can pay them and they don’t impose a heavy financial burden on me. But at one time, they did.

Like many Black people, I grew up in a low-income, low-wealth environment. Loans were a necessity. After graduating, I took a job teaching high school, and the student loan repayments began.

Those loans made it difficult to start my life.

Paying those loans, along with my rent and car payments, meant that I was barely making ends meet. There was no leftover money. Saving for a down payment on a home or investing in a business was out of the question. Had I not gone back to graduate school (and borrowed more money), I would have been stuck in that life limbo for years.

I can only imagine what it’s like today.

College costs are rising. Real estate costs are rising. People borrow more and cannot afford the one investment that traditionally builds wealth. There is rising income inequality. A few professions – finance, medicine and law – have seen wages rise. But for most other professions, they have stagnated or declined. It’s hard out there.

So while I am sympathetic with critics who argue that student loan forgiveness is unfair, this is bigger than one’s personal feelings.

Loan forgiveness is the moral thing to do.

Removing that burden off the backs of low- and moderate-income people will allow them to lead fuller and more meaningful lives.

READ MORE: 'Keep borrowers in debt': Republicans plotting legal challenges to Biden’s student debt relief plan

'Professional dividers' on social media are shattering democracy for profit

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that social media platforms are destroying democracy. They allow people to sort themselves into homogenous tribes, he argues.

Haidt says that they can spread disinformation more quickly. People could be attacked more easily. “It was as if the platforms had passed out a billion little dart guns, and although most users didn’t want to shoot anyone, three kinds of people began darting others with abandon: the far right, the far left and trolls,” he writes.

Haidt, an NYU professor, has been constructing this narrative for several years. He is one of a growing cadre of scholars and writers who are concerned about the heightened polarization in the United States and what it might mean for our democracy. I am one of them.

READ MORE: How 4chan fantasies and Republican rhetoric molded the Buffalo mass murderer: report

Creating conflict

As are Kevin Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer.

Kruse and Zelizer are professors of history at Princeton University. Their book Fault Lines also tackles America’s increasingly fractious society. The two historians take a broader sweep than Haidt does, arguing that America, since the 1970s, has become increasingly divided along political, economic, racial and sexual (gender) lines.

For Kruse and Zelizer, social media’s role has been to amplify those divisions. Cable stations in the 1980s and the internet in the early 2000s were technologies that had promised to democratize and expand the public square. That may have happened, but these technologies, they say, also further fragmented the population.

READ MORE: Ben Shapiro calls on Supreme Court to 'unwind' same-sex marriage

Kruse and Zelizer write that, “the fragmentation created a world with fewer points of commonality in terms of what people heard or saw, even as computing and cable technology emerged as the medium through which most people consumed their cultural goods.”

I find Haidt’s and Kruse and Zelizer’s arguments to be compelling. Both give plausible explanations for what many of us experience.

I’m more sympathetic to Haidt’s argument on social media, however. I think social media does more than amplify conflict. It creates it.

And there is a class of people, found disproportionately on the political right, who use it to exploit conflict for profit.

Professional dividers

“Grifter” is the trendy term for these folks.

I prefer “professional dividers,” though.

A grifter can be an online dating coach, or a therapist promising to solve your problems for a fee. A professional divider’s express purpose is to sow division in the population, then monetize it.

Think of Ben Shapiro.

Matt Walsh.

Steven Crowder.

Candace Owens.

They have huge social media platforms that they use to sow division. They and other professional dividers can be distinguished from professional good-faith commentators by the content they create.

  • They seek controversy. There is a hyper-focus on hot-button cultural issues or hot takes that will get clicks. As I write this, Matt Walsh has just published a video entitled “Ugly People On Reality Shows?” where he takes umbrage with what he calls the “woke mob” calling for body diversity on reality shows.
  • They demonize groups. Because professional dividers are primarily on the right, the people demonized will always be on the left. The target group’s actions will be interpreted in the worst possible way. This demonization also occurs through the spreading of misinformation or telling outright lies. Consider Candace Owen’s tweet stating that:
79% of Planned Parenthood clinics are in minority neighborhoods. This is not by accident. That is by its founder, Margaret Sanger's, eugenicist design. Go back and read her quotations. The Left sees racism everywhere except for where it actually is.

This is misinformation designed to fan the flames of controversy and paint the left as targeting Black people for abortions. Owens’ claims have been determined to be mostly false by Politifact.

  • They are predictable. Professional dividers are attempting to grow an audience, and they need to feed that audience with consistent outrage material in the same political direction. Ben Shapiro called the intro to Michelle Obama’s new book “absolutely insipid.” It is impossible to imagine Shapiro producing a take other than this. Obama is a democrat and therefore cannot write a book worthy of reading.

Turning profits

These tactics separate professional dividers from the commentators in your newspaper or newsletter of choice. The presence of this highly lucrative profession is one of the main reasons why we are so polarized. Some people sow division and make money from it.

The paradigmatic example of this is mathematician turned massage therapist turned rightwing cultural critic James Lindsay. A holder of a doctorate in mathematics, Lindsay has leveraged a strange mix of academic critique, white grievance and conspiratorial thinking to build a large social media presence.

Lindsay originally focused on demonizing academics and the academic disciplines (eg, queer studies, women’s studies, critical race theory or CRT) that catered to the experiences of minorities.

He and fellow professional divider Christopher Rufo were at the forefront of spreading the lies and disinformation surrounding CRT.

Lindsay has since moved on to other controversial topics. He has been credited with popularizing the false claim that LGBTQ people are “groomers” exploiting children sexually. Twitter has banned using the word groomer as an anti-LGBTQ slur. Lindsay’s repeated use of the word has led to his permanent suspension from Twitter.

Another example is sportswriter Jason Whitlock.

Ackshully

Whitlock, who is Black, has started a YouTube channel called “Fearless,” where he critiques leftist “woke” culture. His toxic mix is Christian nationalism with standard conservative anti-Blackness.

Consider his amazing explanation for why we didn’t have many Black quarterbacks in the NFL until recently. It wasn’t racism, he said. It was that Black boys didn’t learn to be leaders because so many grow up in “broken” homes without fathers. As a result, he said, they didn’t have the leadership skills necessary to be a good NFL quarterback.

But technology – the vast array of devices used to record, analyze and communicate aspects of the game– has made it possible for coaches to manage the game from the sidelines. “The game has actually gotten easier for the quarterback,” he said, “and more responsibility has been put on the sidelines and the coaches.”

Ah, I see.

Coaches and coaching staff (all of whom, we can suppose, had fathers?) can use Wi-Fi connections to help the rudderless Black quarterback from a tragic single-parent home manage the game.

This kind of outrageous take is tailor-made for controversy. It wasn’t racism that prevented Black athletes from playing the quarterback position. No, no. It was ackshully the Democrats and their welfare policies that put future Black quarterbacks in broken homes!

If only we took action sooner

In his piece, Haidt drew parallels between social science research on social media today and research on smoking in the 20th century.

Cigarette makers could ward off calls for regulation because, although there was a preponderance of evidence that tobacco caused cancer, the link had not been conclusive. One can ask how many people lost died because the science was not settled.

Similarly, Facebook and other social media companies have claimed that the science is not settled on whether social media harms our democracy. Haidt advocates for taking action now, as there is a preponderance of evidence that social media harms democracy.

I have the same sentiments about professional dividers.

These people threaten our democracy by purposefully creating controversy, spreading lies and disinformation, demonizing fellow Americans, and sowing division for profit.

As they are primarily on the right, they give fodder to bigoted elements within the Republican Party. Let’s keep using our free counterspeech to work on deplatforming these people.

We can’t wait for scholars to draw a definitive link between their actions and conflict in our society. By then, it may be too late, and our society will be the equivalent of a person with stage 4 lung cancer being told it was probably because of the cigarettes.

READ MORE: Ben Shapiro defends Elon Musk's tweet comparing Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler

The right-wing attack on higher education is about the difference between free speech and academic freedom

Rightwing Republicans have since at least the 1960s accused college campuses of indoctrinating students with leftist ideologies. They call for more free speech (read: rightwing speech) in order to combat such indoctrination. And, recently, the calls have been getting louder.

The most visible manifestation of this is Turning Point USA (TPUSA). TPUSA maintains a website called the Professor Watchlist. TPUSA’s list includes academics who are well-known, including Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. Some are lesser-known. The list also includes lesser-known but vocal academics such as Dr. Anthea Butler, whose authorship of White Evangelical Racism and frequent contributions to MSNBC are tailor-made to catch TPUSA’s eye.

On the TPUSA’s ProfessorWatchlist “about” page, one sees this passage (I bolded key points):

TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right of professors to say whatever they believe; however students, parents and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in our lecture halls.”

READ MORE: Hardening' schools is conceding defeat to violence and death

This statement could have come from any rightwinger.

From my perspective, as an academic, it boils down to a choice.

Do we want our academics to continue teaching and researching according to professional standards? Or do we want academics to compromise those standards in the name of free speech (read: rightwing speech). This understanding hinges on the difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom.

On freedom of speech and academic freedom

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has some ideas. In a webinar earlier this year that can be found on YouTube, DePaul University professor Dr. Valerie Johnson describes the differences between academic freedom and freedom of speech. These ideas, often used interchangeably, are quite distinct.

Freedom of speech and civic engagement is based on the equality of ideas. It is an individual right regulated by law. All speech, at least theoretically, is given equal protection. At a civic meeting, the wealthy Ivy-league educated corporate executive and the working-class custodian have the equal right to express themselves.

By contrast, academic freedom and the classroom experience are based on an inequality of ideas. As Dr. Johnson explained, academic freedom protects activities “manifesting disciplinary competence.”

An academic’s discipline generates knowledge. This knowledge is taught in classrooms. Their discipline has standards for generating new knowledge. These standards apply when conducting research. Academics are protected when research falls within these standards.

When an academic’s activities “manifest disciplinary competence,” they are free to pursue those activities. They can choose their research paths and course content. Teaching certain courses is required, but they choose readings and teaching strategy.

So what conservatives see as indoctrination is simply academics relaying those elevated ideas as determined by their discipline to their students. Sure, the students should be able to have discussions and bring in their perspectives – left, right and center. But ultimately the professor must teach the conclusions from their discipline.

Therefore, threats to academic freedom take a specific form: any group or individual who does not have disciplinary expertise attempting to regulate what academics do violates their freedom.

With this understanding of the difference between free speech and academic freedom, we can look more closely at why this rightwing push for free speech in classrooms (read: rightwing speech) will ultimately force academics to choose competence or conservatism.

Competence or conservatism

While academics tend to be liberal politically, they are bound by professional standards. Third-party accreditation bodies periodically review their course offerings (my university is going through this right now). Moreover, the specific content of a course will always be couched within the consensus from their disciplinary area.

Suppose a professor is teaching Introduction to Sociology. Certain ideas and concepts must be taught for the course to be considered a proper Introduction to Sociology course. The professor’s politics will certainly color some classroom discussions, but ultimately the core content of that course is determined by the discipline.

TPUSA has Faryha Salim on their watchlist. Salim, an adjunct professor at Cypress College, was recorded in a zoom classroom session clashing with a student about police and policing.

The student described police as heroes. Salim countered by claiming that American policing grew out of slave patrols and that police have committed atrocious acts toward citizens and gotten away with it.

Salim also said she would not call the police if in danger because she does not trust them. Her life would be in more danger. The video of that exchange went viral. Salim was removed from the class.

I believe that Salim’s tone could have been better. Students should be able to articulate their viewpoints before the professor relays their discipline’s findings. I can see the concern in that direction.

But the claims that Salim makes are widely accepted within the discipline. The claim that US policing grew out of slave patrols is at this point well understood and a standard claim in criminology. She’s also right that police have done horrible things to citizens and gotten away with it. Finally, the notion that people of color are in more danger in the presence of police is a bit hyperbolic for my taste, but she’s hardly alone in that regard. It’s boilerplate in criminology.

Indeed, if a student today graduates with a degree in criminology and does not know the ideas Salim is relaying to her student, ideas that are not hers alone, that degree program has failed that student.

Or consider Dr. Betsey Stevenson, an economist from the University of Michigan. Dr. Stevenson conducted research showing that the vast majority of people found in economics textbooks were male and that this could explain why few women pursue the field of economics.

This is considered a “radical agenda” by TPUSA.

So Dr. Stevenson is on their watchlist.

In reality, Dr. Stevenson is a paragon of professional competence. According to a write-up by her university, she, along with her co-author, presented this work at the annual American Economic Association conference and published this study in a peer-reviewed journal. Her work was then summarized in The Economist.

So what does TPUSA want Dr. Stevenson to do?

She asked a research question acceptable within her field, used the proper methods to generate an answer, presented their findings for critique by peers and colleagues, and then co-published the work.

The examples of Salim and Stevenson point to a question TPUSA and conservatives generally must answer. Do they want professional competence or do they want academics to compromise their standards in order to add more content that conservatives will like?

Choose academic freedom, not free speech

I focused on TPUSA because of its visibility. But they are emblematic of a conservative push in state legislatures across the country.

According to a report by PEN America, 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and learning in educational institutions were introduced between January and September 2021. Indeed, on the day that I am finishing this piece, Virginia’s Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin signed our state budget. He pushed for a provision that “requires each public college to adopt an official policy on academic freedom and begin reporting on the state of free expression and diversity of thought on their campus.”

Conservatives are calling for more free speech in order to force professors to consider unsupported conservative ideas. Progressives need to push back on this and advocate for more academic freedom.

Choosing academic freedom is choosing competence.

Why are Americans so enraptured by conspiracy theories?

In a June 2021 episode of On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone described a common debate in media circles over conspiracy theories.

Don't put those liars on the air!
I hear you, but sometimes I have to tell people what's going on!
You're spreading their propaganda for them!
It's already spread and having real-world effects!
Well, it wouldn't spread if you denied them a platform!
Gatekeepers don't have that kind of power anymore!
They might if they worked together!
That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!

The conspiracy du jour was election denial. Do you engage with election deniers, platforming and potentially legitimating them? Or do you ignore them at risk of having them spread with no critique?

In that episode, Gladstone spoke with Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University and media critic.

Rosen suggested possible ways out of the puzzle.

One was to report disinformation within a truth sandwich:

When you feel you have to report on a falsehood, you should start with a true statement, sandwich the misleading one in the middle and end with a true statement.

A second was to shift reporting from national to local politics:

The more politics is rooted in problem-solving that people can see in their lives, the less likely this dueling realities universe is to take over.

I started this piece with the intent of describing how much the right-wing has been hijacked by conspiracy theories. I intended to suggest my own ways forward. But the story of conspiracy theories in the US turns out to be more complex. And more troubling.

The contours of conspiracism

Conspiracy theories are dangerous not simply because people believe them. Nor are all conspiracy theories equal. People who believe the Apollo moon landing was faked are not a societal concern. It's when those false claims power troubling behaviors that we worry.

Unlike moon landing conspiracies, election denial forms the justification for overturning legitimate free elections. It can turn a representative democracy into a fascist regime. That was the goal of the J6 insurrection, all powered by a conspiracy theory.

The American public is now learning about “replacement theory,” which is the idea that migrants and nonwhite people are systematically replacing white people. According to a recent Yahoo News/You Gov poll, about 60 percent of Trump voters believe this theory.

We don't have to think that hard to imagine the consequences of accepting this false statement as a true statement. It will lead to xenophobia and mistreatment of migrants, especially nonwhite ones.

Let's not forget about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that ran a close second to election denial since 2020. QAnoners believe, among other things, that an evil cult has taken over the world. They mistrust governments, institutions and elites. They are more likely to believe information not coming from people associated with those entities.

In February, the Public Religion Research Institute said it found that, “Across 2021, 16 percent of Americans were QAnon believers, 48 percent were QAnon doubters, and 34 percent were rejecters."

Wait, wut?

Sixteen percent is one in six people!

And only half of the country doubts QAnon?

This is significant. It suggests this may be a society-wide problem, not only clustered among Republicans. PPRI said Black and brown people were more likely to be QAnon believers than white Americans.

It’s still true that QAnon believers are primarily white (around 60 percent of total QAnon believers), and the largest share is Republican (about 43 percent). But there is more diversity here than I realized.

More research out of the University of Chicago, about conspiracies and immigration, also shows how widespread conspiracy beliefs are. Based on answers to a questionnaire, researchers sorted respondents into two categories: "high conspiratorial thinkers" and "low conspiratorial thinkers." I like this because it’s not tied to any specific conspiracy but instead taps into the predisposition to believe them.

As expected, 45 percent of all high conspiratorial thinkers were Republicans. But a sizeable 36 percent were Democrats.

Similarly, we would expect less-educated Americans to be high conspiratorial thinkers, the logic being these folks have less information literacy or have had less exposure to established facts.

Indeed, 66 percent of “high conspiratorial thinkers” are did not go to college. But that leaves 34 percent of the same who did go to college.

To say we’re a nation of conspiratorial thinkers is no overstatement.

A slightly different question

So what is the solution?

First, I don't think Rosen's suggestions are helpful. It’s all well and good to create a truth sandwich, but when conspiracy theories have as a component that elites are controlling the population, having an elite telling them they are wrong about their ideas is a non-starter.

Covering local issues, where reality is shared, doesn't seem that effective either, mainly because everyday reality simply isn't shared.

People died in Buffalo because one person had a reality in his mind that he and other white people were being replaced. Queer kids are being erased through teacher gag orders in Florida, premised on the QAnon-reality that elite educators want to groom children.

I don't have a solution.

But let me suggest that because so many people in this country across class, race and political lines believe in conspiracy theories, we have been asking the wrong question (myself included).

We have been asking why MAGA types are so invested in conspiracy theories. This question inevitably leads to answers involving racism, Christian nationalism, xenophobia and possibly lack of education.

These answers are only partially correct.

The question goes only halfway.

A full question would ask why we are a nation of conspiratorial thinkers? Once we answer that, we can address the problem.

The potential for political violence lies with normal people harboring extreme racist attitudes

On May 15, a young white man carrying a semi-automatic rifle opened fire outside a supermarket in a predominantly Black eastside neighborhood of Buffalo. The rifle barrel had the N-word written on it along with the number 14, a well-known white supremacist slogan.

Payton Gendron killed three outside the grocery store and wounded another. Then he went inside. When it was over, 10 people were dead, including a security guard with whom he had exchanged fire. Of the 13 people shot, 11 were Black. Gendron, clad in body armor, live-streamed the shooting on Twitch. (Twitch has since deleted the video).

Gendron, 18, is from a rural town 200 miles from Buffalo. There he assembled and posted online a 180-page manifesto. According to CNN, he wrote about “his perceptions of the dwindling size of the White population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of Whites,” and “attributes the internet for most of his beliefs and describes himself as a fascist, a White supremacist and an anti-Semite.”

Mass shooting equation

The public discourse around these tragedies follows a predictable pattern. News reports and commentary discuss how extremism was cultivated in online spaces. Once down the extremism rabbit hole, they took advantage of lax or questionable gun laws to arm themselves. They methodically identified a location where the target would be congregating, and then decided to execute as many as they could.

This is the extremism + guns = mass shooting equation.

It is correct.

To a degree.

The set of beliefs up to and including the belief that terrorism is an appropriate plan of action is clearly extreme. There is a spectrum of racist practices. Gendron was on the far end of that. No doubt.

He’s an extremist.

There is no doubt that readily available firearms are a powerful means by which extremists terrorize minority populations.

If they live in a state with no waiting period for gun purchases, the ink on the manifesto may not have dried by the time they commit mass murder. The potential for carnage, moreover, is exponentially greater if the extremist uses a rapid-fire weapon, like a semi-automatic rifle.

Clearly, the extremism + guns = mass shooting equation is right.

But we’re missing the forest for the trees.

Extreme normal people

The trees are deciphering a shooter’s manifesto. The trees are the patchwork of gun sale and ownership laws and their loopholes in the US. The trees are the quality of the numerous research papers dedicated to understanding how someone becomes radicalized online.

But we need to zoom out for the forest.

If we could look down on the American population from 30,000 feet, we would see large swaths of everyday white Americans grappling with changes in their status vis-a-vis Black people and people of color:

Racial minorities, especially Black Americans, have been pushing for more visibility in the media and more representation in institutions.
The behaviors of people of color, again especially Black Americans, have always been under scrutiny. Increasingly, the behaviors of white Americans are being scrutinized.
For the first time, possibly, since the Great Depression, white Americans are experiencing economic distress, like Black people.

These very real trends amount to a loss of privilege and status. Gone are the days when being white was the most fungible currency. White Americans are more than ever on equal terms with people of color.

This should be celebrated.

But for many white Americans, it generates deep feelings of precarity – a sense that they must do something before all is lost.

With that precarity, and sense of loss, we get a series of problematic behaviors. It would be unwise to assume those behaviors are only random acts of violence. Instead, it’s a collection of opinions and behaviors amounting to a culture of normal people who are extreme.

They are, as Jonathan Metzl argues, literally “dying of whiteness.”

They refuse to support universal health care even though they need it because they see it as a benefit to Black people and people of color.

They support deportation, voter suppression and book burning.

They fill the ranks of the Oathkeepers and other citizen-militia groups.

They are election deniers so devoted they became J6 insurrectionists.

They go to school board meetings and howl at educators to keep “CRT” out of classrooms even if there is no such thing being taught.

They vote for candidates who have no legislative or political experience but pander to their identity as aggrieved white people.

I could go on.

These are accountants, Uber drivers, custodians, lawyers and software engineers. They are normal people with extreme racist attitudes.

So even if we were able to repeal the Second Amendment and find a way to erase all the conspiracy theories and hate speech from the internet, they would find ways of acting out their racist aggression.

Is it really surprising that out of the millions of people in this culture, a Payton Gendron would eventually wake up one morning, write the N-word on the barrel of his rifle and kill 10 Black people with it?

Liberals need better media 'framing' if they want to defeat the right-wing

A press release from the Florida Department of Education, entitled “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students,” says it had rejected 41 percent of textbooks submitted by publishers.

“Reasons for rejecting textbooks included references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics”, the release stated.

Incredibly, about three out of four mathematics textbooks submitted for kindergarten through fifth grade were rejected by the department.

The press release and Governor Ron Desantis's comments later on – he said the books were using “indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism” – naturally led to people asking exactly what caused the department to swipe left on the textbooks. The Times reviewed 21 books, and as expected, there was little that had to do with race.

It is, indeed, political theater, Florida-style. But these performances, if the 2022 elections predictions are any indication, are sold out. The production of “Critical Race Theory in Schools” is still playing to packed houses. “Liberals Are Groomers” has been a surprise hit.

How?

Framing analysis

Some scholars examine how media influences public opinion through what is called framing analysis. Media outlets can set the political agenda by choosing certain issues and emphasizing certain aspects of those issues. By “media,” I mean not only traditional news organizations like Fox but also individuals with large followings like Ben Shapiro and organizations like the Manhattan Institute.

One approach to framing analysis was popularized by Robert M. Entman. A professor of political science at George Washington University, he’s written extensively on media framing. I find his approach to be useful, especially in today’s info-rich environment.

In an article discussing his approach, Entman writes:

To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

Let’s unpack this.

The four frames

The first type of framing is naming.

There’s a lot going on in the world. One can pluck any number of issues to talk about. Republicans could talk about quality of life issues in ways that conform to their conservative ideology. They could talk about people mired in debt, rising income inequality, food deserts in urban neighborhoods, drug addiction and lack of access to healthcare.

Instead, right-wing media outlets identify as “problems” things like diversity training, incorporating Black people into the teaching of US history, teachers discussing variations in gender identity, and most recently, social-emotional learning incorporated in math textbooks.

The second type of framing is diagnosis.

What is the cause of things the rightwing identifies as “problems?” It could be framed as generational disagreements in how we progress as a society – an agree-with-the-ends-but-not-the-means type of frame.

It could be discussed in terms of new ideas coming from academia that are now being applied in ways people are unaccustomed to. But somehow, out of the ether, all of these problems are caused by something called “wokeism” (read: liberals, progressives, the left).

The third type of framing is moral evaluation.

It goes without saying here that when a problem is identified, it is seen as something that must be addressed. But Republicans have decided to pass moral judgments on these issues and their perceived causes.

It’s a kind of gaslighting.

Wanting to talk about the actual history of the United States - warts and all - means you are un-American, the thinking goes. Wanting to teach that Timmy has two dads means you are a pedophile. It’s not people of color who are being discriminated against - despite what all the data suggests. No, it is racist woke people discriminating against God-fearing white Christians, and so on so forth et cetera ad nauseam.

It’s mind-numbing.

The fourth type of framing is resolution.

It is astonishing that Republicans, the party of freedom and smaller government, now exclusively frame solutions in terms of expanding government oversight and restricting freedoms. The way to deal with the discomfort white students may feel when discussing slavery is to propose a law banning those lessons. The party of free speech is now supporting the banning of books and the muzzling of teachers.

A call for better framing

It’s not as if the left doesn’t frame stories. The simple choice of what to put in an op-ed is itself an exercise of it. But there’s a qualitative difference between the means of making stories resonate with one’s target audience, and, as Rick Perlstein recently tweeted in a thread:

careful propaganda campaigns to seed moral panics in order to roll back human rights for everyone who is not conservative, using techniques quite similar to Nazi propagandists.

This is on the money.

The motives and the endgame are different. The frames used by the rightwing have constructed a reality for conservatives in which “wokeism” is the most pressing issue in American society. Real Americans must do anything they can to stop it, up to and including compromising values they wrapped themselves in a decade before.

Many, including me, argue the left can wedge the audience for “Critical Race Theory in Schools” and “Liberals Are Groomers” extravaganzas by talking about quality of life issues. I still believe this, especially for members of Congress running for reelection in swing districts.

But media outlets on the left need to do more than just talk about different things. They need to be more deliberate in constructing a reality that is more beneficial to a greater number of Americans.

We need to identify problems; explain what caused those problems; give a moral evaluation; and describe how we can solve them.

In other words, we need better frames.

'Americans are increasingly wealthy or increasingly struggling': how inequality is imperiling democracy

I did my taxes Friday. I traveled down to South Carolina for the holiday. After spending time with family, I sat down and typed the necessary values into some overpriced tax software. It turns out, for the second year in a row, I owe Uncle Sam.

Around that time, a piece from ProPublica came across my radar.

Entitled “America’s Highest Earners and Their Taxes Revealed,” the report asserts: “In an era of widening gaps between the rich and everyone else, ProPublica’s analysis shows that the US tax system is making inequality worse.”

The takeaway is that the wealthiest people pay far less in taxes than they should. My tax rate was 22 percent. The report revealed the wealthiest Americans pay what ProPublica calls an effective tax rate of 3.4 percent.

After feeling a bit peeved about the likes of Lukas Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart dynasty, may pay less in taxes relative to his income than I do, I realized that other than Bernie Sanders and a few progressive economists like Robert Reich, we don’t talk enough about inequality.

Here is an explainer.

What is inequality?

We must first understand what the middle class is. That is not easy.

There is no real agreement on how to define it. An informative piece by the Brookings Institution lists 12 definitions, which, if combined, would mean “nearly nine out of ten U.S. households — with incomes ranging from $13,000 to $230,000 — are middle class.”

Clearly, this is not helpful.

I will pick one from the Pew Research Center. Pew defines the middle class as a household income of 67 percent to 200 percent of the national median.

According to the US Census, the median household income in 2020 was about $67,500. This is the middle value of household incomes.

If you arrange all household incomes from lowest to highest, the value at which half the households are below and half are above, that’s the median. It’s used instead of average (or mean) income, because adding in very high incomes, like the model and celebrity Kendall Jenner’s $22.5 million income in 2018, would produce misleading values.

According to Pew’s definition, households with incomes between $45,225 and $135,000 are middle-class households.

That passes the eye test for me.

We can imagine households in this range have enough income to participate in our consumerist society, but not so much that they can remove themselves from economic concerns about employment, inflation or saving for their children’s tuition.

There are two related but distinct phenomena that have emerged since the early 1970s with respect to this middle class.

First, the middle class is shrinking in absolute terms.

The percentage of people who are middle class based on objective measures of income distribution has declined. The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2019.

Americans are increasingly wealthy or increasingly struggling.

Unionized jobs and jobs that pay solid middle-class wages are being replaced by “gig” jobs and low-paid service jobs. Meanwhile, wages for jobs in finance, law, medicine and information technology are booming.

This is the much-talked-about “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Second, the distance – measured by income, between rich and poor – is widening. A report from the Congressional Research Service on this issue makes it clear: “In 1975, the average income of households in the top fifth of income distribution was 10.3 times as large as average household income in the bottom fifth of the distribution; in 2019, average top incomes were 16.6 times as large as those at the bottom.”

Being in an upper-income household in the United States today means you are living a different life than poorer households.

In some respects, the above quote underestimates the degree of distance between rich and poor, especially in terms of wealth.

According to data from the Federal Reserve, at the end of 2021, the top 10 percent of American households controlled $99.20 trillion. The rest of the households had wealth amounting to $42.98 trillion dollars.

It actually gets worse. If we look at just the bottom half of American households, their wealth amounts to $3.73 trillion dollars.

Ok, so why does it matter?

Income inequality produces oligarchy.

Politics

Few people are so naive as to assume everyone has an equal say in who is elected and what legislation they put forth. We all know that while the vote cast by a working-class Joe or Jane is equal to the vote cast by a millionaire, the millionaire’s money influences who is elected and what legislation the elected decides to support.

But the extent to which money impacts politics is astounding.

Consider the current Alabama senate race.

According to OpenSecrets.org, Super PAC Alabama Conservatives Fund has spent $1.8 million in support of Katie Britt’s 2022 bid.

Britt is one of several Republican contenders to replace the outgoing Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Conservatives Fund has released several campaign spots touting Britt’s conservative principles.

Harbert Management, an investment management firm, is the super PACs biggest investor, donating $250,000. The company’s CEO is Raymond J. Harbert, who is one of the richest people in Alabama.

So what do you think your direct donation of $50 does?

To be sure, small donations do add up. But when a candidate gets a $250,000 boost from a local, well-known millionaire, that has to play into the political calculus of that candidate.

As a side note, Britt is in the vein of Marjorie Taylor Green and Madison Cawthorne. She is pro-Christian, pro-life and anti-immigration. Indeed, the person who would have been the favorite in a pre-Trump universe, current US Rep. Moe Brooks, was called “woke” by Donald Trump who then rescinded his endorsement.

Accordingly, her Trumpist Christian nationalist bona fides have gained the favor of the Alabama Christian Conservatives super PAC to the tune of $1.2 million.

This spending by super PACs is all above board and expected. In this regard, Katie Britt’s campaign is not unique. Nor is the state of Alabama.

Nor are conservatives. What is unique is the growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the growing ability for wealthy people working alone or in concert to bend politics to their will.

I zeroed in on Alabama to show in a more concrete way how money impacts politics. But there is no solace in zooming out.

It gets worse.

According to Public Citizen, 25 people contributed half ($1.4 billion) of all individual super PAC contributions ($3 billion) since 2010.

The issue of the 2020s

Income inequality is a bacteria eating out the core of democracy.

Do we really have a political system by which everyone is treated equally and has an equal say in government? Let’s not be naive.

What we have is increasingly a nation of rich and poor.

The rich – and especially the mega-rich – are like oligarchs who influence law in their favor at the expense of workaday folks.

I hope income inequality is the defining issue of the 2020s.

Our identity as a nation hangs in the balance.

The right-wing's use of 'groomer' as a substitute for 'bigot' is a dangerous 'false equivalency'

Some right-wingers have taken to using “groomer” to describe those who are sensitive to the concerns of LGBT-plus people.

A spokesperson for Florida Governor Ron Desantis tweeted: Don’t Say Gay “would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.”

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted: “Anyone who opposes anti-grooming laws like the one in Florida is pro-child predator.”

Fox’s Laura Ingraham did a segment called “Doom and Groom.”

I agree with progressives. This is a transparent ploy having little to do with protecting children. Some argue, including Lindsay Beyerstein, that the discourse is an attempt to spread QAnon ideology. A key takeaway from John Stoehr’s interview with Gabriel Rosenberg was that “groomer speech” is being used to harden the line between real conservatives (anti-pedophile) and those who are not (pro-pedophile).

I’m interested in why the typical conservative – not the thought leader or political elite – might use the term. A more interesting reason the right uses “groomer speech” is it’s the equivalent of “bigot” on the left.

The logic appears to be this: if the left can call me a racist for all these things I don’t see as racist, I’m justified in calling the left “groomers” because they want to teach gender and sexual identity to children.

Let’s dig in.

The function of a slur

When someone hears the word “slur,” they are likely thinking of racial slurs referring to racial or ethnic groups in a dehumanizing manner.

The n-word is the paradigmatic example.

But slurs can be defined more broadly as “an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo,” or words having “a shaming or degrading effect.”

In this sense, we use slurs quite often.

Consider the charge of being a “bigot” - a racist, sexist, homophobe or transphobe. This can be solely a descriptor of behaviors. But usually, the charge of bigotry is infused with a moral evaluation.

The identified bigot is a bad person who does not live according to what “correct-thinking people” believe is appropriate.

The identified bigot is insulted, shamed and degraded.

But slurs serve a purpose.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim said deviant behavior has a useful function in society. I can simplify it in three bullet points.

1. When we see deviance and call it out, we clarify right and wrong.

What do you do when you discover that your male coworker thinks women are too emotional to lead a company? Call him out as a sexist! He may see this as slurring his good name, but it can be the catalyst for a positive chain of events. By calling him out, you let him know you think those ideas are morally wrong and damaging to women.

2. When people react to deviant behavior, it strengthens social bonds.

Other people learn the man is a sexist. They come together in a collective denunciation of the man and sexism.

3. After coming together against deviance, they can enact social change.

The collective agreement that sexism is wrong can lead to collective political action and the passing of legislation against sexism.

In this way, a slur can be a small catalyst for social change.

This is one reason why I vacillate between the social niceties necessary for productive exchanges. Slurring someone can end a conversation. But slurring someone can also spark positive social change.

False equivalencies

Although we don’t usually think of them as slurs, calling someone racist, sexist or transphobe is indeed a type of slur.

However.

These slurs are grounded in the link between action or idea.

They are grounded in the fact of the harm done to people.

It’s easy to chart the consequences of someone who believes women are too emotional for leadership positions. They may not hire a qualified woman for a leadership position or listen to women who are in leadership roles. And so calling that out has justification.

Similarly, we are aware of higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts among transgender youth and adults. Efforts to suppress healthy conversations around trans identity in public settings can exacerbate the problem. A trans activist is wholly justified in calling someone who’s suppressing these conversations “transphobic.”

People on the right complaining about the left hurling accusations of bigotry at them without basis are usually quite wrong.

But what is the link between discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and grooming? There is none.

Obviously.

There is no link between discussing sexual orientation and gender identity and setting out to abuse children sexually, or grooming.

There is no link between learning about sexual orientation and gender identity in school and being vulnerable to sexual advances in school.

(Learning does not make kids vulnerable. It makes them powerful).

Claiming that “bigot” is the same as calling someone a “groomer” is a false equivalency. The former alerts us to actual attitudes and behaviors that can lead to harming populations. The latter draw spurious links between education and sexual behavior and, in the process, diminish the actual crime of child sexual abuse.

“Groomer,” far from leading to good social change, harms two groups. It introduces noise into pedophilia discourse, making it harder for people to tune into real evidence signaling child sexual abuse. It also prevents discussions about gender and sexual identity. That may increase rates of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts among LGBT-plus people.

Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings highlighted the rift between meritocracy and diversity

Here is Senator Cory Booker speaking to Ketanji Brown Jackson on the third day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing:

So I’m walking here, first week I’m here, and somebody’s been here for decades doing the urgent work of the Senate, but it’s the unglamorous work that goes on no matter who’s in offices, guy comes up to me and all he wants to say, I can tell, is 'I’m so happy you’re here.' But he comes up, he can’t get the words out, and this man, my elder, starts crying. And I just hugged him and he just kept telling me, 'It’s so good to see you here; it’s so good to see you here. Thank you, thank you, thank you.'

There may have been a bit of grandstanding with Booker’s comments (he has a history of that). But I felt this one.

Booker is tapping into the emotional benefits of diversity. These are benefits that rarely make it into the conversations about diversity and representation, but they may be the most important of all.

Meritocracy vs. diversity

Meritocracy and diversity are often pitted against each other.

The pro-meritocracy side argues that diversity initiatives, especially affirmative action, is unfair. With respect to college admissions or employment, they argue that it is discriminatory to select a person based on a quality that has nothing to do with actual performance.

White and Asian students, the logic goes, have done what is necessary to attend a college or gain employment, but lose out to Black and Hispanic applicants simply because they were not the right color. Martin Luther King would roll over in his grave, they would assert.

A second, less frequent argument focuses on damage done to beneficiaries of diversity initiatives. This is the “mismatch theory” proposed by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who says affirmative action places students in settings in which they are destined to fail.

The pro-diversity side has at least two counterarguments.

First, while few expect complete equality in terms of representation, large gaps suggest discrimination or bias are exacerbating differences in outcomes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise about 17 percent of the engineering workforce. A primary reason for this low number, the argument goes, is because of societal gender roles and expectations pushing women away from majoring in engineering. Diversity initiatives help correct for these dynamics.

Second, pro-diversity advocates argue that diversity benefits people other than the minority group. This is the primary reason why educators and some employers support affirmative action or diversity initiatives. The son of a Mexican immigrant would presumably have a different perspective on a classroom issue or a workplace concern than someone who identifies as white or Black. Having a diversity of opinion in knowledge-generating spaces is an irrefutable good.

I tend to side more with pro-diversity arguments, but neither the pro-meritocracy nor pro-diversity arguments tap into what Booker’s comments to Judge Jackson signify for many minorities.

The nod

“The nod is important. It is the internationally accepted, yet unspoken sign of acknowledgment of Black folks around the world.”

These words were from a scene in the ABC series Black-ish.

The main character, Andre Johnson, is upset that his son did not nod at another Black student at his primarily white school. By not nodding, his son was not being Black enough – a major theme in the show.

His son, living in a privileged environment and not experiencing racial exclusion, was being Black-ish. Meanwhile, Andre had grown up in Compton, went to historically Black college Howard University and was the first Black executive at his advertising firm.

The person who went up to Booker and told him “thank you, thank you” was doing some version of the nod.

At the confirmation hearings, Booker was doing something very similar to Judge Jackson.

When I seek out a new faculty hire and give them my contact information and make it clear they can contact me if they need anything, I am doing a version of the nod.

People who are “the only” in schools or places of employment gain emotionally when diversity initiatives bring in more people they can identify with. I am not entirely sure white Americans, especially white male heterosexual Americans, are aware of these emotions.

Maybe I can explain.

First is a sense of belonging.

When you are one of the only ones in a space, you can feel a sense of isolation. You may even feel like an imposter. But when you see a second or third person like you, and they acknowledge you, then you feel as if you belong.

This is a fundamental human emotion.

Imagine showing up to soccer or cheerleading tryouts and being surrounded by kids who had been there before or all knew each other from elsewhere. There is that voice in your head saying “should I be here?” You want someone to, well, nod at you and say they see you and recognize you.

There is also a sense of shared struggle.

I suspect the elder doing “unglamorous work,” as Booker describes it, is in a support staff or custodial position. Very much unlike the Stanford-to-Oxford-to-Yale Booker. But the elder and Booker share the experience of navigating a particular space as Black people.

There can also be a sense of pride and possibility.

Booker is not only navigating that space alongside the elder but doing so from a position of authority. It is one thing to identify with someone and acknowledge a shared struggle. It is another to meet someone who is emerging triumphant from that struggle.

Booker emerged triumphant.

As did Jackson.

If they did it, why can’t you? Why can’t your kids?

A way to understand this is to imagine someone from your small hometown making it big. You don’t share their paycheck, but you feel a little pride when they “represent” your hometown. People from that hometown can reason that if that person made it big, they can too.

The merits of diversity

Conversations about merit and diversity tend to ignore the psychological benefits of representation.

On the one hand, I get it.

It’s hard to quantify emotions like a sense of belonging or feeling pride. It is much easier to look at raw numbers.

The folks arguing for merit tend to focus on SAT scores or some other metric to show how unfair a focus on representation is.

Meanwhile, the folks supporting diversity initiatives are keen to look at the gaps in representation and argue for higher numbers of minorities in a particular field.

Even the support for a diversity of opinion tends to be about the wider number of views that people are exposed to.

While these points are worthy of consideration, we must not overlook the emotional benefits of representation for historically underrepresented minorities. These emotional benefits are the bridge connecting meritocracy and diversity arguments.

When people feel they belong they are more likely to invest in the task at hand and be more productive. Bringing in more people from diverse backgrounds can make that happen.

This is one reason why schools seek out minority teachers. It is not because teachers of color are necessarily better at relating to minority students. It is because their presence signals to students of color that it is a space for them.

For those folks who are not in those spaces, diversity initiatives can show people on the outside looking in that they can be a part of those spaces.

That Black girl making early life decisions as a freshman in college may decide to dedicate herself to the law, rationalizing that if Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson can become a Supreme Court justice, so can she.

In this way, there is merit in diversity.

Right-wingers are absolutely gushing over South Carolina firing squad executions

A recent press release from the South Carolina Department of Corrections tells us that “the department is now able to carry out an execution by firing squad.”

It is worth reading the execution protocol:

Three firing squad members will be behind the wall, with rifles facing the inmate through the opening. The rifles and open portal will not be visible from the witness room. All three rifles will be loaded with live ammunition...The inmate will wear a prison-issued uniform and be escorted into the chamber. The inmate will be given the opportunity to make a last statement. The inmate will be strapped into the chair, and a hood will be placed over his head. A small aim point will be placed over his heart by a member of the execution team. After the warden reads the execution order, the team will fire.

What’s next? Is the state going to permit tar-and-feathering of convicted criminals? Sew scarlet letters on the shirts of adulterers?

South Carolina is now the fourth state to legalize firing squads, along with three other red states Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah.

A nation against the death penalty

The thing most striking to me is not necessarily that the South Carolina legislature authorized death by firing squad, but that this embrace of barbarism is so at odds with the national zeitgeist.

According to Gallup, support for the death penalty is at a five-decade low. One could argue that, at 54 percent, a majority still favors it as punishment for murder. But when Americans are asked if they could choose between life imprisonment with no choice for parole and the death penalty, 60 percent favor life imprisonment.

This is the first time since the 1980s, when polls first asked the question, that Americans have favored life imprisonment over death.

Public opinion is clearly trending away from capital punishment. The number of people put to death has decreased over the years.

According to a brief from the Death Penalty Information Center: “2021 saw historic lows in executions and near historic lows in new death sentences. … Eighteen people were sentenced to death, tying 2020’s number for the fewest in the modern era of the death penalty.”

In 1999, 99 people were executed.

In 2020, 11 were.

Much of the decrease is because states have abolished it or because states are more narrowly defining crimes punishable by death.

We are more aware of the flaws in our legal system.

The racial bias in death penalty sentencing is well documented. Indeed, Washington abolished the death penalty in 2018 in part due to the racial bias in capital sentencing within that state.

We know the state often gets it wrong, too.

The Netflix docuseries The Innocence Files revealed in excruciating detail how our system so often gets it wrong. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an average of about four wrongly convicted people on death row have been exonerated since 1973.

It is unconscionable for people to be put to death wrongly.

The public is now so anti-death penalty that many pharmaceutical companies no longer provide the drugs used for lethal injection.

Conservatives and the death penalty

That brings us back to South Carolina.

South Carolina has 37 people on death row to be executed because the drugs used for lethal injection have become difficult to obtain.

The legislature wants so badly to kill these people, they have reinstated a practice that belongs in the 19th century.

Why is South Carolina moving towards barbarism when it seems so much of this country is trending away from it?

The answer is simple. You probably know what it is.

South Carolina is dominated by conservative policies. According to Gallup, 77 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty. Seventy percent of “conservatives” say they support the death penalty.

The national anti-death penalty trend has not reached the south. No southern state until Virginia last year had abolished the punishment.

One could argue that Virginia is a southern state historically and geographically, but its politics are purple and oftentimes blue.

Indeed, the death penalty was abolished during Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets reinstated under the current Republican governor.

Allowing the state to kill people (who we hope are actually guilty) is unconscionable and it surprises me this gets so little attention.

Canada has no death penalty. Australia has no death penalty. The United Kingdom has no death penalty. Indeed, no European country has the death penalty except Belarus.

Even Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty and hasn’t executed someone since the 1990s.

We are the only country in the Americas to carry out executions.

To be fair, the number of executions in the United States is far lower than the big five of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt.

But that’s nothing to be proud of.

So much of what is problematic about our country can be traced back to conservative ideologies that should no longer have relevance to an open, modern, post-industrial and democratic society.

Executions, now by firing squad, is a prime example.

How polls structure questions can drastically affect the way people respond – and that matters

A story in The Hill, entitled “New polling confirms Democrats' left-leaning policies are out of touch,” concludes this way:

The electorate is increasingly pessimistic about the direction in which President Biden and Democrats are steering the country and feel that the party's priorities do not align with their own.

I get it.

There’s a sizable population of once-and-future Democrats who think the preferences of the left don’t fit theirs. I think a focus on racial, gender, and sexuality issues (“identity politics”) and poorly said narratives about police reform (“defund the police”) and drug treatment (harm reduction) do not connect with a lot of voters.

My intuition is based on a well-established relationship between poor or working-class people, and what they want from their leaders. Generally, those populations are concerned with economic security and strong institutions (good schools and effective policing).

But I've learned to be skeptical of polls and news reports about them.

On the one hand, polls help us understand the opinions of people who respond to pollsters’ questions. To the extent that the answers given are true reflections of people's attitudes, they are indispensable.

On the other hand, polls can sometimes give people attitudes and opinions based on how they are written. Then the interpretation of those opinions by news outlets affects the political discourse.

Let me explain.

Do polls mirror or make reality?

Suppose we have these two polling questions:

  1. Agree or disagree: "we are not spending enough money on assistance to the poor."
  2. Agree or disagree: "we are not spending enough money on welfare."

These are the same questions worded differently.

What do you think you are going to get?

People will agree with 1 more than 2, because it’s worded more positively. "Assistance to the poor" is positive. "Welfare" is negative.

(Indeed, research from 1989, a period in which welfare reform was an important topic, showed that about 63 percent of poll respondents said the government was spending too little on “assisting the poor,” but only 23 percent said it was spending too little on “welfare.”)

Now imagine the welfare question being picked up by a national news outlet. The story leads with “New polling confirms Democrat focus on welfare is out of touch.” Maybe a congressional aide sees the story and informs her boss that constituents reject assistance to the poor.

Has the poll mirrored reality or made reality?

The poll in The Hill story was done by Schoen Cooperman Research. In its totality, it indicates the American electorate's disapproval of Joe Biden. The electorate disapproves of the job Joe Biden is doing as president and his ability to lead an economic recovery. I think this is a rather consistent finding across many polls over the past year.

But the main takeaway from The Hill was that Biden and the Democrats need to tack to the center. Here is one of the key questions from that poll that are evidence of that conclusion:

Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are out of touch with hard working Americans. They have been so focused on catering to the far-left wing of the party that they're ignoring Americans' day-to-day concerns, such as addressing the rising prices for goods and gasoline and combating violent crime.

Forty-three percent “strongly agreed” with this. Eighteen percent “somewhat agreed” (61 percent total). Only 23 percent “strongly disagree.” Eleven percent “somewhat disagree” (34 percent total). Five percent were not sure. Six in 10 voters believe Biden is out of touch.

But look at the question carefully.

There are at least four different claims being made.

In effect, a story is being told to the respondent:

  1. "The Democrats are out of touch."
  2. "The Democrats are focused on catering to the party's far-left wing."
  3. "The Democrats are ignoring Americans' day-to-day concerns."
  4. “The Democrats are ignoring rising prices for goods and gasoline and combating violent crime."

The poll is “explaining” why the Democrats are out of touch and the “real issues” Democrats are ignoring. The use of "hard working" Americans is also a nice touch, helping to paint the picture of Biden as disconnected from the average blue-collar worker.

Then the next question:

Do you think President Biden and the Democratic Party should move more to the left and embrace more liberal policies, move more to the center and embrace more moderate policies, or do you think President Biden and the Democratic Party should stay where it is right now?

Well, after reading an excellent story about how and why the Biden administration is catering to out of touch leftists, here is what respondents say about the question of whether Biden should pivot.

Eighteen percent of respondents said Biden should move to the left, 54 percent said he should move to the center, 13 percent said he should stay where he is and 15 percent said they were not sure.

So there you have it.

It’s hard to tell whether these questions mirror or make reality.

The questions, as they are worded and the sequence they are in, may push many voters to say they think Biden should “move to the center.” Then The Hill’s reporting pushes that narrative into public discourse.

There is a there there, but where?

Surveys show a lot about the electorate.

Over time, polls asking questions about similar topics in slightly different ways coalesce around a general conclusion we can trust.

We can be confident that many in the electorate disapprove of Biden's job as president and whether he can lead an economic recovery.

But when it comes to the claim that Democrat narratives do not align with the needs of many working-class voters, it is more complicated.

As I mentioned, I do believe there’s a there there. But we need to be skeptical of how polls are written. What would pollsters have gotten had they asked respondents to agree or disagree with this:

Joe Biden and the Democrats were stopped from providing help to hardworking Americans because of opposition from Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and all Republicans in the Senate?

My guess is you would get a different breakdown and narrative.

Indeed, within the same poll, a question brings us closer to the reality of what people really think. “Which of these issues do you feel President Joe Biden is actually most focused on? Select up to three."

Here are the top five:

  1. Russia's invasion of Ukraine (34 percent)
  2. The coronavirus pandemic (33 percent)
  3. Infrastructure; improving roads and mass transit (18 percent)
  4. The economy; creating jobs (16 percent)
  5. Inflation/rising prices (16 percent)

Wait a minute!

Where’s the identity politics? The kooky lefty policies?

There’s a there there, but where?

Many voters likely believe Democrats are worried about identity politics more than Republicans. A not insignificant number are dissuaded from voting Democrat for those reasons. But saying, as The Hill claims, Democrats are seen as "out of touch" is off-base.

Polls can be tricky.

We should be skeptical of what they say and how they say it.

How the left can overcome cancel culture's overreach

I had a meeting with some colleagues about a month ago. We were in a leadership program discussing a video about dealing with differences.

In my mind, working on autopilot, I assumed the differences were racial and ethnic. I said, somewhat offhandedly, that since our state is now run by a Republican, diversity may be de-emphasized.

A few minutes later, a colleague mentioned political diversity, and how I was throwing shade. This colleague saw my comments as dismissive.

Coming from a tenured professor at this university, it smacked of intolerance, I was told. I was not open to political diversity.

Wut?

Evidence of self-censoring

A recent piece in the Times set my corner of Twitter ablaze. Emma Camp, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, wrote about her experiences on one of America’s premier campuses:

"My college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights protests and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.”

Some of the aspects of Camp’s claims are problematic. All ideas are not the same. So “debating” ideas for the sake of debate only ever gives air to views that are discredited or sometimes bigoted.

But the general thrust of Camp’s piece, that college campuses are characterized by ideological conformity, rings true to me.

She relates one of the experiences of her college mates:

“Another friend shuts his bedroom door when I mention a lecture defending Thomas Jefferson from contemporary criticism. His roommate might hear us, he explains.”

I do not know what happens in college dorm rooms, but the notion that there are things one should not say is pretty clear to me. I have seen it. I tweeted out my own experiences of witnessing white students self-censor in a grad class I taught on race.

My experiences, along with Camp’s, are admittedly anecdotal. But the sense by conservatives that they must self-censor is widespread.

According to a Pew survey from 2020, 56 percent of Republicans reported that cancel culture “generally punishes people who don’t deserve it.” Meanwhile, only 22 percent of Democrats think so.

Or more telling is the difference between Republicans and Democrats in their view on how important it is to speak their minds.

Speaking our minds is essential to free speech. In an older survey done by Pew in 2017, 48 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats say being able to speak your mind freely online is important. By 2020 the numbers were 54 percent Republican and 38 percent Democrat.

What happened in three years?

I don’t know.

Counterarguments

Before my thoughts on what needs to be done, I should address four common counterarguments that push back against the notion that there is a culture of intolerance. Two are weak. Two are strong.

The first is that there is no evidence suggesting a culture of intolerance. I don’t know what to do with this. The data is clear. Many people believe they cannot say what is on their minds for fear of reprisal. To me, this is just straight denial, and it is delusional.

A second counterargument is that other people on the political left are censored or canceled too. This is true.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains a disinvitation database, where one can see the attempts at cancellations across the political spectrum.

(I should note it is “attempts.” For example, there was an attempt by pro-Israeli and conservative groups to cancel BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors’ commencement speech at ULA. They were unsuccessful. Sometimes they are. I lost a valued colleague recently because of a conservative backlash to some of their research. But because conservatives also do censoring does not mean that censoring is OK).

The third and fourth arguments are far more interesting.

A third is that self-censoring is normal and pro-social. I agree with this. If someone thinks trans persons are “not real” and that a person born with a penis is always a man, do I want that person to communicate what is ultimately a denial of personhood in social settings? Not really. There is little benefit in propagating bigotry.

A fourth is that lending credibility to the idea that society and college campuses are intolerant to different (conservative) viewpoints provides more fuel for conservatives to do real canceling.

I agree with this as well.

There has been a raft of legislation over the past few years to prevent ostensibly leftists from indoctrinating students. This legislation is nothing more than state censorship.

My governor instituted a tip line parents can use to report when teachers present “divisive concepts” (read: making white people uncomfortable). As I am writing this, the Florida legislature passed a bill dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It prohibits teachers up to third grade from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The struggle is real.

A way forward

Many people on the left say claims of intolerance have no evidentiary basis. Or they say the intolerance is not unique to the left and is nothing more than a ploy. I find those arguments unconvincing.

But claims that self-censorship is prosocial and prevents the spread of bigotry is a valid claim. As is the claim that overhyping the level of intolerance on campuses provides fuel for conservatives to pass actual censorship laws.

I have a few ideas.

First, we need to think about context and space.

There are certain spaces in society where we need to give people wide latitude to communicate. Neither the office nor a dinner party are the proper setting for “debate” or saying things potentially damaging.

But in learning environments and democratic deliberations, people must be allowed to say what is on their minds.

In this way, I agree with Emma Camp. She writes: “We need a campus culture that prioritizes ideological diversity and strong policies that protect expression in the classroom.” Yes. We need not only a campus culture but a political culture that respects ideological diversity.

Second, we need to apply the practices of diversity already honed for sexual and racial diversity to people holding different ideas.

I think this is what my colleague was getting at when they talked about political diversity. Progressives need to do what we have always done with groups who are different from the dominant group – give them room to breathe.

Be open and explicit about the fact that conservative ideas are often anathema on campus. By acknowledging that conservatives feel censored, and addressing it with established progressive practices, we throw water on the conservative fire.

There is no need to deny the censoriousness prevalent on college campuses and in society at large. It’s there.

But we can present clear moral reasons why this censoring is often necessary. At the same time, we have at our disposal time tested practices for people who feel they are being mistreated for their views.

We can apply these practices to people who identify as conservatives, and in the process show them the benefits of progressive ideas.

Google fined for 'Street View' image of Canadian woman's cleavage

Google fined for 'Street View' image of Canadian woman's cleavage Woman unhappy (Shutterstock)