Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sapolsky (3): The "Spirit Level" Debate over Inequality and Health

One of the weakest parts of Robert Sapolsky's Behave is his claim that economic inequality necessarily causes bad physical, mental, and social health, even in societies where poverty has been largely abolished.  The problem is that he relies on the research of Richard Wilkinson and a few others who argue for this position without acknowledging that many critics have pointed out flaws in this research, which one can see in the debate over the book coauthored by Wilkinson and Kate Pickett--The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.  This book was first published in 2009, and it became an international bestseller.  It provoked many critical responses, including two books: Christopher Snowdon's The Spirit Level Delusion (2010) and Peter Saunders' Beware False Prophets (2010).  (Saunders' book can be found here.  The Epilogue to the second edition of Snowdon's book can be found here.)  In the paperback edition of their book, Wilkinson and Pickett added a "Postscript," in which they attempted to answer their critics.  A longer version of their reply to critics can be found here.  Remarkably, Sapolsky is completely silent about this debate.

Sapolsky is also silent about the political implications of this debate.  The apparent failure of the Marxist economies and the apparent success of the capitalist economies at the end of the 20th century had had a dispiriting effect on the Left.  Marx's prediction that the impoverishment of the proletariat in capitalist societies must necessarily lead to revolution had proven false, because capitalism was raising the standard of living for all classes, while socialism was failing.  But then Wilkinson and Pickett seemed to show that capitalism was ruining human life by creating high levels of economic inequality, so that while absolute poverty was disappearing, relative poverty was rising: those people living low-status lives felt poor, because they saw that others with higher status had so much more, and the chronic stress from this feeling of relative poverty made people sick.  Moreover, this sickness from inequality created lots of social problems: not only higher rates of disease and reduced life expectancy but also higher rates of crime, mental illness, social distrust, obesity, poor educational performance, teenage births, and high rates of imprisonment.  Capitalist inequality was making everyone desperately unhappy, and the only solution was socialist programs for creating greater equality through redistribution of the wealth and welfare state policies.  Thomas Piketty and others have elaborated this argument about the corrosive effects of capitalist inequality.  This has given new life to the Left.

As I indicated in my previous post, Sapolsky's distinctive contribution to this lefty critique of capitalist inequality is his evolutionary explanation of inequality as the necessary consequence of the move from an egalitarian state of nature for hunter-gatherers to a hierarchical dominance structure in societies based on an agricultural mode of production; and from this he draws the conclusion that it is impossible to restore equality in modern societies that cannot go back to hunter-gatherer life, which means that no socialist policies can ever succeed in overturning inequality and its corrosive effects on human health.

Unlike Sapolsky, I do not see any clear scientific support for Wilkinson's theory of the inequality/health relationship--particularly, the idea that inequality is inherently harmful to human health because of the chronic stress that it creates for low-status people, even in the absence of real poverty.  The flimsiness of the empirical evidence for this theory is evident in the debate over Wilkinson and Pickett's Spirit Level.

Sapolsky's assertion that "numerous studies" support this theory, as if there were a general consensus among researchers about this, is not true (441).  Wilkinson and Pickett say that "there are around 200 papers in peer-reviewed academic journals testing the relationship between income inequality and health in many different settings" (279).  But if you check the footnote for this assertion, you will see that they are citing one of their own papers (Wilkinson and Pickett, "Income Inequality and Population Health: A Review and Explanation of the Evidence," Social Science & Medicine 62 [2006]: 1768-1784).  If you read their paper, you will see that they survey 169 results from 155 studies on inequality and wealth; and of these, they identify 88 as supportive of their theory and 81 as either unsupportive or "mixed" in their results.

One of the best surveys of this research is by Andrew Leigh, Christopher Jencks, and Timothy Smeeding ("Health and Economic Inequality," in W. Salverda, B. Nolan, and T. Smeeding, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 384-405).  It's available online.  They conclude that "the empirical evidence for such a relationship [between inequality and health] in rich countries is weak.  A few high-quality studies find that inequality is negatively correlated with population health, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that the relationship between income inequality and health is either non-existent or too fragile to show up in a robustly estimated panel specification.  The best cross-national studies now uniformly fail to find a statistically reliable relationship between economic inequality and longevity.  Comparisons of American states yield more equivocal evidence."

The popular appeal of Wilkinson and Pickett's book comes from their graphs that apparently show a statistical correlation between economic inequality and bad health across 23 nations.  (A few of these graphs can be seen online).  For example, here is a graph that seems to show that life expectancy is longer in more equal rich nations.  This graph is easier to see at the online location, where it is figure #17.

This is typical for most of the graphs.  It's a simple linear regression model with the level of income inequality in the nations on the x axis for the explanatory variable and level of health (in this case, life expectancy in years) on the y axis for the dependent variable.  A best-fit line is drawn through the scatter points of data to indicate the trend.  In this case, the declining trend line shows life expectancy declining with rising income inequality.  This downward sloping line depends mostly on the relatively high life expectancy in Japan and Sweden and the relatively low life expectancy in the USA and Portugal.

The data for this graph is from the 2004 United Nations Human Development Report.  A reader who notices this might wonder why they used the 2004 report when the 2005 and 2006 reports were available to them, and actually they do use the 2006 report elsewhere in their book.  They even use the 2006 report for its life expectancy data in another graph (compare pages 7 and 82 in their book).

Christopher Snowdon has shown that if Wilkinson and Pickett had used the 2006 report for their data, the graph would have looked like this:

A larger picture of this graph can be found here.

Now the trend line is going up!  If they had used the 2009 report for their data, the trend line would again be going up.  So here increasing income inequality is slightly correlated with increasing life expectancy. 

Now you should notice that Snowdon has added Hong Kong, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, which were excluded by Wilkinson and Pickett.  Hong Kong shows that a very wealthy but less equal society can have high life expectancy.  Slovenia and the Czech Republic show that more equal but less wealthy societies tend to have low life expectancy.

So the trend line here will slope down or up depending on one's selection of the data points.  Wilkinson and Pickett selected data points that would give them a downward sloping line, while Snowdon selected data points to give him an upward sloping line.  At least Snowdon points this out to his readers, while Wilkinson and Pickett hide this from their readers.

But let's say that we accept Wilkinson and Pickett's graph as showing us a correlation between less equal societies and lower life expectancy.  What exactly does this tell us?  If we remember the common saying that correlation is not causation, then we see that this graph by itself tells us nothing about causation, although Wilkinson and Pickett want their readers to assume that it does show that inequality causes low life expectancy.

Moreover, Wilkinson and Pickett never follow the common practice in the statistics of correlation of testing for alternative explanations that might be confounding variables.  For example, if we compare Japan (the most equal society) and Hong Kong (the least equal society), we would have to notice that despite their great differences in income inequality, they tend to perform about the same not only in life expectancy but also in many other respects.  Is this perhaps explained by their similarity in their Asian culture?  Wilkinson and Pickett never consider this possibility because they never consider any alternative explanation beyond income inequality.

In the Postscript to their book, Wilkinson and Pickett explain their failure to test for alternative explanations: "including factors that are unrelated to inequality, or to any particular problem, would simply create unnecessary 'noise' and be methodologically incorrect" (285).  Since they assume that inequality must be the only explanation, any other possible explanation is to them "unnecessary 'noise'"!

Actually, of course, just glancing at their data might suggest many alternative explanations.  Consider, for example, freedom as measured by the Human Freedom Index, which has been the subject of a post.  Most of the countries with high life expectancy rank in the top 15 of the Human Freedom Index: such as Switzerland (2), Canada (6), Australia (6), and Sweden (15).  The one exception is Japan (32).  Is it possible that greater freedom has something to do with higher life expectancy?

Wilkinson and Pickett point to the Scandinavian countries as setting the standard for how egalitarian societies can promote human health and happiness.  But they ignore the fact that these countries generally score high on both the Economic Freedom Index and the Human Freedom Index (combining economic freedom and personal freedom).  As I have argued in other posts here and here, the Nordic social democracies are not purely socialist, because they are actually capitalist welfare states.

Here's another graph from Wilkinson and Pickett:

This seems to show that homicide rates are higher in more unequal rich countries.  But notice that the upward slope of the line depends entirely on the USA as an outlier.  It is standard statistical practice to throw out outliers to avoid creating spurious correlations.  Wilkinson and Pickett do not do this, because taking out the USA here would create a graph with no correlation between inequality and homicide, which is contrary to the result they want to find.  They say nothing about the high rate of gun ownership in the US as a possible explanation for high homicide rates in the US.  But they do mention gun ownership in their attempt to explain away the high homicide rate for Finland, which is a more equal country, and the low homicide rate for Singapore, which is a less equal country.  "In the United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation," they observe, "Finland had the highest proportion of households with guns, and Singapore had the lowest rate of gun ownership" (136).

One might notice another problem in these graphs from Wilkinson and Pickett's book.  Inequality is measured by inequality in income.  Is this the best standard?  Is it possible that in countries with extremely high income tax rates--like the Scandinavian countries--people will be motivated to hide their true income or accumulate wealth in forms other than income?  If so, then measuring inequality by income inequality will tend to make countries with high income taxes appear more equal than they really are.

Actually, as Snowdon points out, Wilkinson and Pickett use at least five different measures of inequality in their book, which allows them to change the measures to achieve whatever results they want to find.  For example, on page 239, they compare the incomes of the top 10% and the bottom 10% in the US and UK, which shows that "both countries experienced very dramatic rises in inequality which peaked in the early 1990s and have changed rather little since then."  But on page 296 they want to show that inequality peaked just before the financial crisis of 2008, and to achieve this result, they measure inequality through the share of wealth held by the top 1%.  This is the only place in the book where they use this as the measure of inequality.  They don't use this measure elsewhere in the book, because by this measure Norway and Denmark are less equal than the USA, and so using this as the measure of inequality would not give them the results they're looking for.

Wilkinson and Pickett admit that there is at least one social problem that is more common in more equal countries--suicide.  To explain this, they suggest: "suicide is often inversely related to homicide.  There seems to be something in the psychological cliché that anger sometimes goes in and sometimes goes out: do you blame yourself or others for things that go wrong?  In Chapter 3 we noted the rise in the tendency to blame the outside world--defensive narcissism--and the contrasts between the US and Japan" (175).  So, you see, in the less equal countries, when people are unhappy, they are inclined to kill other people; but in the more equal countries, unhappy people have the decency to kill themselves rather than others!

Wilkinson and Pickett recognize that "social integration" is important for human health: "It's not just social status and psychological wellbeing that affects our health.  The relationships we have with other people matter too. . . . Having friends, being married, belonging to a religious group or other association and having people who will provide support, are all protective of health" (76).  But then they are silent about the possibility that people  with low social status but high social integration might show good health and happiness.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Charles Murray (in Coming Apart) has shown that people in the white underclass in America can be very happy if they are married, if they find satisfaction in their work, if they live in places where neighbors help one another, and if they are active religious believers.  Contrary to what is suggested by Wilkinson, Pickett, and Sapolsky, low social status need not by itself make people unhealthy and unhappy. 

My defense of "good inequality" can be found here, here, and here.

Here is a video of a debate between Wilkinson, Pickett, Saunders, and Snowdon.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sapolsky (2): Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

Like Rousseau, Robert Sapolsky believes that the biggest mistake human beings have ever made was in leaving the egalitarian life in the state of nature and entering the agrarian societies where inequality was invented.  That inequality--in which people are ranked by their social status from high to low--makes us all physically, psychologically, and socially sick. 

In animals with dominance hierarchies, an animal's rank in that hierarchy can greatly influence its physical and mental health.  The most commonly studied physiological effect of social status is the response to stress, as shown in the blood level of glucocorticoids (GCs), adrenal steroid hormones that are secreted during stress, such as cortisol or hydrocortisone in primates.  GCs help to mediate adaptation to short-term physical stressors, such as the fight-or-flight response to an attacking animal, but GCs become pathogenic when they are secreted chronically, such as when animals are exposed to frequent social stressors because of their ranking in a hierarchy.

Is it more stressful to be dominant or subordinate?  In the 1950s, researchers talked about "executive stress syndrome"--the idea that those at the top suffer from the stressful burdens of their responsibilities.  Sapolsky thinks this has been mostly refuted by research showing that those at the top of a hierarchy who have a sense of control, but who are not directly responsible for supervising many subordinates, benefit from reduced stress.  By contrast, those in middle management, who are responsible for supervising many people under them, but who have little ultimate control, are more exposed to chronic stress.

Early in his career, Sapolsky argued that being subordinate was far more stressful than being dominant.  He became famous for showing that the low-ranking baboons that he observed in Kenya showed the bad health consequences of chronic stress, and he suggested that this might also be true for low-ranking human beings.

Later, however, he conceded that things were more complicated--that whether low-ranking or high-ranking individuals experienced the most stress depended on variable social conditions and individual personality traits (Behave, 435-42; Sapolsky, "The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health," Science 308 [29 April 2005]: 648-52).  For example, when the maintenance of a despotic hierarchy requires that the alpha male frequently engages in physical reassertion of dominance, the dominant individual will experience the most stress.  But if the alpha male can maintain his dominance by social intimidation (a threatening stare) without violent aggression, then it's the subordinate individual who experiences the most stress.  If the hierarchy is stable, the dominant individual is less stressed, and the subordinate individual is more stressed.  If the hierarchy is unstable, it's the dominant individual who is more stressed.  If the dominants have a personality that make them skillful at exerting social control while being sociable with others, while the subordinates have a personality that make them poor at coping with their subordination and finding support from others, then the subordinates will be more stressed.

Among human beings, Sapolsky argues, the suffering of those in the low status positions does not necessarily come from their being desperately poor, because even in those prosperous societies where there is almost no poverty, the people with low status still suffer from being less well off than those ranked above them.  Their suffering comes not so much from being poor as from feeling poor.  What counts is not absolute poverty but relative poverty.  Even in prosperous societies that have abolished absolute poverty, because almost everyone enjoys an abundant level of economic resources for a materially comfortable life, those who have less than others suffer from the psychosocial stress of living a low-status life.  Even those in high status positions suffer from the social maladies caused by inequality--including high crime, low levels of social trust, and a futile pursuit of happiness through competitive consumerism.  As Sapolsky puts it, everyone is unhappy because "marked inequality makes people crummier to one another" (Behave, 292).

In surveying the evidence for these conclusions, Sapolsky relies on the work of many researchers, but he particularly stresses the "crucial work by the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson of the University of Nottingham" (Behave, 294).  Wilkinson argues that a comparative analysis of the international data for socioeconomic conditions shows that the more economically unequal societies suffer far more from bad health and social maladies than do the more equal societies.  He contends that social welfare programs for redistributing wealth to achieve more equality--as has been done, for example, in the Scandinavian social democracies--will make life better for all.

Remarkably, Sapolsky does not share Wilkinson's belief that socialist or welfare-state policies can alleviate the suffering from inequality.  Sapolsky observes:
"The SES/health gradient is ubiquitous.  Regardless of gender, age, or race. With or without universal health care.  In societies that are ethnically homogeneous and those rife with ethnic tensions.  In societies in which the central mythology is a capitalist credo of 'Living well is the best revenge' and those in which it is a socialist anthem of 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.'  When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world" (Behave, 442).
So if Sapolsky thinks that neither capitalism nor socialism can overturn the oppressive inequality invented in the move from foraging bands to agrarian societies, then does he think we should look for some way to return to the egalitarian state of nature?  No, he dismisses that as a ridiculous idea.  He quotes Lawrence Keeley as expressing "a pretty weird worry" in writing: "The doctrines of the pacified past unequivocally imply that the only answer to the 'mighty scourge of war' is a return to tribal conditions and the destruction of all civilization."  "In other words," Sapolsky remarks, "unless this tomfoolery of archaeologists pacifying the past stops, people will throw away their antibiotics and microwaves, do some scarification rituals, and switch to loincloths--and where will that live us?" (Behave, 315).

Sapolsky identifies himself as a lefty.  But while he shows the lefty lament for the evils of inequality, he lacks the lefty optimism about overcoming that inequality through a collectivist egalitarianism.

I must say that I find it hard to take seriously this leftish moaning about the devastating effects of any social inequality for those who suffer so from a low-status ranking that they can never live a happy life.  I am not even sure that Sapolsky really believes what he says about this.

Consider the following remarks by Sapolsky:
". . . in humans, there is a robust imperviousness of SES-health associations to differences in social and economic systems. . . . it is a testimony to the power of humans, after inventing material technology and the unequal distribution of its spoils, to corrosively subordinate its have-nots" ("Social Hierarchy," 652).
"As with other species, human quality of life also varies with the consequences of rank inequalities--there's a big difference between the powerful getting seated at a restaurant before you and the powerful getting to behead you if the fancy strikes them. . . ."
"We belong to multiple hierarchies and can have very different ranks in them.  Naturally, this invites rationalization and system justification--deciding why hierarchies where we flounder are crap and the one where we reign really counts."
"Implicit in being part of multiple hierarchies is their potential overlap.  Consider socioeconomic status, which encompasses both local and global hierarchies.  I'm doing great socioeconomically--my car's fancier than yours.  I'm doing terribly--I'm not richer than Bill Gates."
"An example of this [membership in multiple hierarchies] that I found to be excruciatingly uncomfortable: I used to play in a regular pickup soccer game at Stanford.  I was terrible, which was widely and tolerantly recognized by all.  One of the best, most respected players was a Guatemalan guy who happened to be a janitor in my building.  At soccer he'd call me Robert (on the rare occasions when anything I did was relevant to play).  And when he came to empty the garbage from my office and lab, no matter how much I tried to get him to stop, it would be 'Dr. Sapolsky'" (Behave, 431).
Now I don't think that the Guatemalan guy must necessarily be a desperately unhappy man suffering from stress-related disorders because he happens to be in a low-status job.  If his janitorial job is secure, if he's a successfully married man with a family, if he has good friends, if he lives in a good neighborhood, and if he's an active member of his church--if his life has such conditions for a good life--then he's living a happy life.  And it does make a big difference that he lives in a liberal social and economic order, where even though Stanford professors have higher status than he does, they are not permitted to behead him if they so choose.

And I don't think Sapolsky really thinks he's doing terribly--as a well-paid Stanford professor--because he's not richer than Bill Gates.

I think both Sapolsky and the Guatemalan are living much happier lives in a liberal capitalist society that allows for inequality of social status than they would in an illiberal socialist society.

I have surveyed some of the global empirical evidence for this claim in my series of posts on "human progress through the liberal Enlightenment" in November and December of 2016.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sapolsky on the State of Nature: Hobbes or Rousseau? Why Not Locke?

The question of whether the original state of nature for human beings in foraging bands was a state of war or a state of peace has been a contentious question in the history of political philosophy, beginning with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.  This continues today to be one of the most intensely  debated questions in the social and biological sciences, with some people (such as Richard Wrangham, Azar Gat, and Steven Pinker) adopting the Hobbesian view of the state of nature as a state of war, and others (such as Douglas Fry, Brian Ferguson, and Robert Sussman) adopting the Rousseauian view of the state of nature as a state of peace.  Remarkably, however, these folks never recognize the Lockean alternative--that the state of nature is predominantly a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war--even though they often end up agreeing implicitly with this Lockean view. 

Weighing the evidence and arguments in this debate supports the conclusion that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  I have argued for this assessment in various posts (here, here, and here). 

It is surprising to see how this modern debate repeats the same pattern over and over again.  First, it's assumed that the only choice is between Hobbes and Rousseau.  Then, some people try to argue for the Hobbesian position, and others try to argue for the Rousseauian position.  And yet, eventually most agree that neither extreme position is completely right.  But they cannot recognize the Lockean position as superior to both, because they haven't thought about Locke's argument, or how the evidence gathered by modern scientists might confirm what Locke says.

So, for example, much of the debate over the past 20 years was initiated by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996).  He frames the debate as a choice between Hobbes and Rousseau (5-32).  And, as the subtitle of his book indicates, he seems to take the side of Hobbes against Rousseau.  But then he concedes that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau got it right: "If Rousseau's primitive golden age is imaginary, Hobbes's perpetual donnybrook is impossible" (178).  And yet he never considers the possibility that the archaeological and anthropological evidence that he surveys in his book could be seen as supporting Locke's position as mostly right.

One can see the same pattern repeated in the debate sparked by Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).  In a report on this debate in Science, the author says that the debate is rooted in the dispute between Hobbes and Rousseau; and he identifies some scholars as Hobbesians and others as Rousseauians (Andrew Lawler, "The Battle Over Violence," Science 336 [2012]: 829-30).  But then he reports that most scholars agree that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau are completely right.  "They do not argue for a Rousseauian perspective. But that doesn't mean they're ready to embrace a Hobbesian view, either" (830).  The reader is left wondering whether there is some third alternative that is closer to the truth.

I see this pattern again in Robert Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017).  Sapolsky is a primatologist (particularly, a baboonologist) and neuroscientist at Stanford University, who is famous on the Stanford campus for his popular lecture courses, and also famous around the world for his lectures on YouTube from his course "Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology" that have attracted over a million views.

I first heard him lecture at Stanford in 1988 when I was auditing courses in the Program in Human Biology.  Now, in his new book, we have a massive (790 pages in small print!) magnum opus that brings together much of his thinking from that human behavioral biology course.  The book also has the casual hipster wit that makes his lecturing so engaging for students. 

Sapolsky's book is a comprehensive textbook surveying all of the work over the past forty years--since the publication in 1975 of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology--on the biological bases of social behavior.  Like his teacher Melvin Konner, Sapolsky explains behavior as arising from a complicated interaction of many biological, psychological, and cultural factors, in which every single factor exercises some causal power only in the context of all the other factors.  He is particularly interested in explaining social cooperation (humans at our best) and violent aggression (humans at our worst).

Explaining the deep evolutionary roots of human violence leads him into the debate over whether warfare is rooted in the evolved human nature of our ancient nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, or whether war is a relatively recent cultural invention that began only a few thousand years ago when human beings moved into sedentary agricultural societies ruled by militaristic states. 

Here he follows the recurrent pattern in this debate that I have just sketched.  He says the debate is "Hobbes-versus-Rousseau" (305-27).  He generally takes the side of the Rousseauians--particularly, Douglas Fry--in criticizing the Hobbesians (Keeley, Pinker, Wrangham, Napoleon Chagnon, and others).  And he tells the story of how a baboon troop that he studied in Kenya experienced a change in their social culture, so that they became less aggressive and more peaceful, less Hobbesian and more Rousseauian, which shows the cultural flexibility emphasized by the Rousseauians.  But then he concedes that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau got it completely right.  "So, Hobbes or Rousseau? Well, a mixture of the two, I say unhelpfully" (325).  He never mentions Locke or considers whether a Lockean account of the state of nature might be best.

In reviewing Sapolsky's book for the New York Times Book Review, Richard Wrangham generally praised the book.  But he also criticized Sapolsky for becoming a "partisan critic" in his account of the Hobbes-versus-Rousseau debate over the evolution of human violence.  Sapolsky's Rousseauian partisanship is subtle in that it depends mostly on his remaining silent about evidence and argumentation that contradict the Rousseauian claims.  For example, he endorses Marshall Sahlins' claim that nomadic  hunter-gatherers were "the original affluent society" (317-18).  But he is silent about the anthropologists who have shown  that Sahlins' argument is not supported by the evidence, which I have indicated in a previous post.

Similarly, Sapolsky relies on the research of Douglas Fry to support the conclusion that nomadic hunter-gatherers have always been peaceful (322).  But Sapolsky is silent about the many criticisms of Fry's reasoning, which I have surveyed in a previous post.  For example, Fry has failed to recognize that many of the modern hunter-gatherer bands that he has identified as peaceful have been surrounded by militarily superior farmers, and so it's hardly surprising that the hunter-gatherers have not gone to war in such circumstances.

Sapolsky says that there is no archaeological evidence for warfare among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.  There is, however, one recently discovered site in northern Kenya dated at around 10,000 years ago that had the skeletons of 27 people killed in a massacre.  Sapolsky says that this is not evidence for ancient warfare among nomadic hunter-gatherers, because the victims here seem to have been sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were living along the shoreline of Lake Turkana, where there was probably abundant fish and game animals; and so the attackers wanted to steal this "prime beachfront property" (321). 

Sapolsky does not tell the reader that the discoverers of this site could not agree on this.  As I indicated in a previous post, one member of the team accepted the interpretation repeated by Sapolsky--that this is evidence for ancient warfare arising among sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were no longer living a nomadic life.  But another member of the team had a different interpretation.  She said that while there is lots of evidence of warfare "among settled, sedentary communities," the discovery in Nataruk is the first "archaeological record of armed conflict between early nomadic hunter-gather groups."  She suggested that the foragers who were massacred had not established a settlement on the lake, but rather they were a "small traveling band of hunter-gatherers who stopped by a lagoon to hunt or fish."  And so, she seemed to adopt the Hobbesian interpretation of this archaeological discovery as confirming that warfare was prevalent among our earliest foraging ancestors, and thus deeply rooted in our evolved human nature.

But no matter which interpretation one accepts, this confirms Locke's claim that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a state of peace that easily became a state of war whenever there was any resource worth fighting over--like a good fishing spot.

Sapolsky seems to agree with this when he says that even purely nomadic hunter-gatherers "are no tie-dyed pacifists," because they often engage in lethal violence (323).  If so, then Sapolsky's account of the state of nature is neither Hobbesian nor Rousseauian but Lockean.

But what about Sapolsky's baboons, who showed, he argued, that even if their evolved nature is Hobbesian, they can develop a social culture that taps into their "inner Rousseau"?  I have written a post on Sapolsky's earlier reports of this in 2004 and 2013.  In his new book, he emphasizes the great "flexibility" and "social plasticity" that this shows in baboon life, which sounds like what Rousseau identified as the "perfectibility" of human ancestors, so that nature put no limits on how far human beings could be transformed by cultural history.

In the earlier reports, however, Sapolsky suggested that baboon "perfectibility" is not unlimited.  The changes brought by cultural history are "within the limits of baboon sociality," and the new culture of Forest Troop did not bring "an unrecognizably different utopia."  There was still a dominance hierarchy.  There was still displacement aggression, although it had been reduced.  And while the rate of reconciliations had increased, the need for reconciliations showed the persistence of conflict.  Sapolsky even indicated that the overall rate of aggressive conflict in Forest Troop was similar to other troops.  So despite the cultural malleability shown here, "there are not infinite amounts of social plasticity in a primate social system."

I have argued that we see three levels of social order in these baboons--baboon nature, baboon culture, and baboon individuals.  The repertoire of social behavior characteristic of a baboon species sets the natural limits of baboon sociality.  This baboon nature constrains but does not determine baboon culture.  And, finally, nature and culture constrain but do not determine individual behavior.

I will be writing more posts on Sapolsky's book.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Is There a Culturally Evolved Prejudice against Atheists as Immoral?

Can we be good without God?  If not, should we fear atheism as promoting immorality?  Is atheism contrary to our evolved natural desire for religious belief? 

I have written about this in a previous post, which includes links to other posts.

Now we have new research by Will Gervais and his colleagues indicating that people around the world have a culturally evolved prejudice against atheists (Gervais et al., "Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice against Atheists," Nature Human Behaviour 1 (2017): 1-5).

Here's the abstract:
"Mounting-evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks.  However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component.  Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence, intergroup conflict, and tacit prejudice against non-believers.  Anti-atheist prejudice--a growing concern in secular societies--affects employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.  Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion's putatively necessary role in morality.  However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude--as well as intracultural demographic stability--of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear.  Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global same (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most--but not all--of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists.  Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was evident even among atheist participants around the world.  The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice.  Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion's powerful influence on moral judgments persists, even among non-believers in secular societies."
Their sample was drawn from 13 countries on 5 continents, which included highly secular societies (for  example, Netherlands, Finland, and China) and highly religious societies (for example, United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, and India) with diverse religious histories (including countries with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular majorities).

Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and their colleagues have defended a cultural evolutionary model of religion--arguing that the transition from small foraging bands to large agrarian states required extended cooperation of strangers that was made possible by the emergence of religions with moralistic Big Gods, who enforced social cooperation by rewarding the good and punishing the bad in an afterlife.  People who live in large cities need to have norms enforced among strangers by third party punishment, and God is the ultimate third party punisher.  This most recent research was to test one of the predictions from this theory--that human beings around the world should have an intuitive fear of atheists as immoral.

In this research, participants were asked about this scenario:
"When a man was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing stray cats and other animals in his neighborhood."
"As an adult, the man found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead.  He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city.  Their dismembered bodies ae currently buried in his basement."
"Which is more probable?
"1. The man is a teacher.
"2 (a). The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.
"2 (b). The man is a teacher and is a religious believer."
Half of the participants were given 2 (a), and the other half were given 2 (b).  They were also given other kinds of questions to distract them from noticing that this was an experiment to test for stereotyping and prejudice.

In asking the participants to judge probability, bias is indicated if they commit the "conjunction fallacy."  The conjunction rule for the qualitative law of probability states that the probability of a conjunction--the probability of 1 and 2--cannot exceed the probability of its constituents--the probability of 1 or 2.   (That so many people commit the conjunction fallacy was seen by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman as an example of the illogical heuristics of the human mind.)  If the participanats cannot see that the man being a teacher is more probable than the conjunction, they are showing an illogical bias--a bias either against atheists or against religious believers.

The results showed a greater prejudice against atheists than against religious believers: there was an overall conjunction error rate probability of 0.58 for atheist targets, but only 0.30 for religious targets.  So, people were roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality--being a murderous psychopath--as representative of atheists relative to believers.

The most surprising result was that even people who identified themselves as atheists showed this same prejudice against atheists as being inclined to extreme immorality!

There is one anomaly in this research, however, that is left unexplained.  Of the 13 countries represented in this study, Finland and New Zealand do not show any bias against atheists.  For Finland, the atheist error rate is .28, and the religious error rate is .26.  For New Zealand, the atheist error rate is .38, and the religious error rate is .29.  Finland shows no bias, and New Zealand very little.  So what goes here?  Are the people of Finland and New Zealand just better in understanding the logic of probability?  Or are they unusual in being free of the global prejudice against atheists?

So is it really unfair to assume that atheism promotes immorality?  The answer from Gervais and his colleagues is complicated.  On the one hand, their evolutionary theory of moralistic religion as necessary for securing large-scale cooperation beginning with the Neolithic transition to agrarian states assumes that religious belief does support morality.  On the other hand, they say that the intragroup cooperation secured by religious belief also promotes distrust of those outside the group, so that religious believers are thrown into conflict with those who do not share their religious beliefs, as shown by religious persecution and religious wars.

Moreover, they argue that as modern societies become ever more secularized, we can see the religious support for morality as a ladder that can be kicked away once we have climbed to the top.  (Friedrich Nietzsche uses this same metaphor of the history of religious cultures as a ladder that we can climb to the top and then kick away in Human, All Too Human [6-7, 292].)  We can see this in highly secularized societies like Denmark and the Scandinavian countries that are highly cooperative and peaceful, although fervent religious belief has almost completely disappeared.  We can explain this as showing how morality can evolve from natural moral sentiments without any necessity for religious belief in a moralistic God.

And yet their research suggests that even in many highly secularized societies, there is still some bias towards believing that morality requires religious belief; and so cultural evolution away from this might be slow.  Norenzayan has suggested an analogy to the cultural evolution of literacy.  For 99% of human evolutionary history, humans have had oral language, and so learning to speak is naturally easy for them.  But writing is a relatively recent invention, and for most of its history, writing and reading were restricted to a small educated elite.  Only in the past two centuries, has modern education spread literacy to the great majority of human beings around the world.  Similarly, he suggests, religious morality has been central to our cultural evolution for thousands of years, and it is only recently that secular morality has begun to prevail in some societies.  We might expect this evolutionary trend to eventually prevail.

As an example of this evolutionary trend, consider a point that came up in my posts on Tom West's book on the American Founding--the debate over religious tests for holding public offices.  One way for legally enforcing religious morality is to have a religious test for public office.  Originally, all of the state constitutions except for Virginia and New York had such tests.  For example, members of the Pennsylvania state legislature had to swear: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration."

The argument for religious tests was that religion supports morality.  A speaker at the Massachusetts convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution condemned the "no religious test" clause of the Constitution: he argued that no religious tests "would admit deists, atheists, etc., into the general government; and, people being apt to imitate the examples of the court, these principles would be disseminated, and, of course, a corruption of morals ensue."  So here we see the very prejudice against atheists detected by Gervais and his colleagues.

But why then did the founders at the Constitutional Convention vote unanimously and without any controversy for "no religious tests" in the Constitution?  And why did all of the states with religious tests abolish them during the founding period, thus following the example of the national constitution?

To explain this, West says that Chris Beneke "rightly notes" that in "founding America . . . libertarian principles . . . repeatedly triumphed over local prejudices and discriminatory laws."

So now it seems that the "founding consensus" turned to "libertarian principles" dictating that the legal enforcement of religious belief is not necessary to avoid a corruption of morals.  Is this an example of the cultural evolution towards secularized morality expected by Gervais and Norenzayan?

Do we lose anything in moving from religious morality to secular morality?  West thinks that the American founders thought that something would be lost.  In Kantian language, secular morality is a morality of hypothetical imperatives, while religious morality is a morality of categorical imperatives.  A religious morality allows us to see natural rights as sacred.  A secular morality allows us only to see those natural rights as conducive to the pursuit of happiness.  The sacredness of God-given rights is lost in the move to secularized natural rights as instrumental for human happiness (West, The Political Theory of the American Founding, 95).

Michael Egnor seems to be making the same point in his response (published by the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News") to the debate over Gervais' article. (Egnor is a neurosurgeon who teaches at Stony Brook University.)  Can you be good without God?  Egnor's answer is that you cannot be good if God doesn't exist; but if God does exist, you can be good even if you don't believe God exists.

If God exists, Egnor explains, then as Moral Lawgiver, He can provide the cosmic transcendent standards of good and evil.  And insofar as that Moral Law is a natural law "written in our hearts" (Romans 2:15), atheists can intuitively feel the transcendent weight of that Moral Law, even though they deny the divine source of that Law.

But if God does not exist, as the atheists say, then there can be no such thing as good and evil.  There are only human opinions about what serves human welfare, about what we happen to like.  But what we like or dislike gives us only hypothetical imperatives about what serves the needs of human nature, human culture, and human individuals.  This cannot give us the categorical imperatives woven into the cosmic order by the Moral Lawgiver.

I have defended the hypothetical imperatives of natural goodness here and here.  All natural law reasoning depends on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society.  So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural laws.

The biblical theist will say that this natural law has been "written in our hearts" by God.  The atheist will say that this natural law belongs to our evolved human nature.

Although Egnor criticizes the atheist for not recognizing the metaphysical ground of morality in God's command, Egnor seems to concede that as a practical matter, this intellectual mistake does not prevent the atheist from living a morally good life.

Of course, Egnor has to face up to all the problems that come with a divine command theory of morality.  For example, would Egnor say that murder is good whenever God commands it, as when God commanded Abraham to murder his son Isaac?

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Trump and the Political Scientists

Beyond my participation on a panel on Tom West's book on the American founding, my main goal at the convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco was to attend as many of the panels on Donald Trump as I could, so that I could hear what the political scientists are saying about his surprising electoral victory and his unusual presidency. 

The fact that most political scientists failed to predict Trump's victory is embarrassing for the profession, and so it's not surprising that there were many panels on Trump that attracted large audiences.  Two of the panels I attended had over 150 people in the audience, which must be at least four or five times the average attendance for panels.

The panels sponsored by the Claremont Institute were generally dominated by right-wing pro-Trump supporters.  The panels sponsored by organized sections of the APSA were generally dominated by left-wing empirical political scientists who were anti-Trump.

There were three kinds of questions raised at these panels.  First, who voted for Trump, and why did they do so?  Second, how did the Trump voters prevail in the election?  Third, if Trump is judged unfit to be President, is there any constitutional means to remove him from office?

To the second question, the obvious answer is the Electoral College.  Despite losing the popular vote, Trump won in the Electoral College.  Why?  Some political scientists suggested that what this shows is that the Electoral College increases the weight of the white voters and voters in rural areas who voted for Trump.  One can argue that this is not what was intended by the framers of the Constitution, who hoped that the Electoral College could prevent the election of demagogues like Trump.  The Constitution says that "Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature therefore may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."  Many state legislatures have chosen to bind the electors to vote for their party's nominee, and the selection of electors is by a "winner-take-all" principle, so that the candidate with the most popular votes in a state wins all of the electors of that state.  This creates a weighting of votes that favored Trump over Clinton.  Clinton lost overwhelmingly in white and rural areas of some key states (like Wisconsin) that led to her defeat in the Electoral College, despite that fact that she led in the popular vote total by almost 3 million votes.

Unless one believes that rural white voters deserve to have their votes weigh more than the votes of urban non-white voters, one has to wonder about how to change this.  One way to do this could be carried out by the state legislatures.  They could legislate that all the Electoral College votes of the state would be allocated to the winner of the national popular vote.  Or they could legislate that the Electoral College votes of the state would be divided up proportionally to the popular vote, so that it would no longer be "winner-take-all."  Another way, of course, would be to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College.

To the third question, there are three possible answers.   If Trump is clearly unfit--morally and intellectually--to be President, then the Congress could impeach him, or the threat of impeachment could persuade him to resign, or he could be declared (under the 25th Amendment) to be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" by the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet.  If the Vice President and the Cabinet were to declare Trump unable to fill his office, but Trump disagreed, then a 2/3 vote of each House of Congress would be required to up the judgment of disability.

According to some interpretations of the impeachment power of Congress, the 25th Amendment (ratified in 1967) was unnecessary, because the Congress's impeachment power was intended to allow the Congress to remove a President judged to be unfit to fill the presidential office. 

At the APSA convention, John Yoo made this argument on one of the Claremont panels.  Yoo made the same points that were summarized a few months ago by Greg Weiner in an op-ed article in The New York Times.  According to the Constitution, impeachment applies to "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."  It has been commonly assumed that "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" means that only criminal acts by the President are impeachable.  And thus, we now have a lot of discussion about whether Trump has committed a criminal "obstruction of justice," for which he could be impeached.  But as Yoo and Weiner have argued, persuasively I think, this mistakenly sees impeachment as a legal judgment rather than a political judgment.  As Hamilton indicated in Federalist Number 65, impeachment applies to offenses "of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they related chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself."  At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Madison explained the purpose of impeachment, saying "that some provision should be made for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate."  If the Congress judges Trump unfit to be President, the Congress should impeach him, because his unfitness will inflict a great injury on the American community.

The first question--who voted for Trump and why--elicited a variety of answers at the convention.  Most of the people on the Claremont panels answered with Trump's own rhetorical answer to that question:  the country is divided by a battle between the interests of the Ruling Elites (including Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives) and the interests of The People, and Trump is on the side of The People.  Of course, this is the usual rhetoric of the demagogic populist who contrasts the "people"--the virtuous majority of the community--with powerful elites and minority groups who aggrandize themselves at the expense of the people.

The obvious problem with this simple dichotomy--The Elites versus The People--is that The People is divided between Trump opponents and Trump supporters, and Trump's loss of the popular vote and his unpopularity today indicate that his opponents outnumber his supporters.  When I made this point in the question and answer period for one of the Claremont panels, I did not hear a clear answer.  The only answer I can think of is that the Trump opponents among the People have been fooled into sacrificing their own interests in serving the interests of the Elites and minority groups.

Unlike the Claremont political scientists, the empirical political scientists think that the political sociology and psychology of Trump's supporters cannot be explained with a simple dichotomy of Elites versus the People, because the interests of the People are diverse.  Here is where I see the political sociology and psychology of evolved human nature.  The 20 natural desires include the desires for social status, political rule, and property.  Most of the explanations of Trump's supporters by the empirical political scientists depended on one of those three natural desires.

Carson Holloway presented a paper on how Aristotle's account in the Politics (book 5) of the sources of factional conflict in a regime might explain Trump's appeal.  At the most general level, Aristotle claims, factional conflict arises from disputes over equality and inequality: some people engage in factional conflict because they aim at equality, and they think they have less than they deserve, because others have aggrandized themselves unfairly; and other people engage in factional conflict because they aim at inequality, thinking that they deserve to be above others. 

According to Aristotle, this battle over equality and inequality is commonly over either profit or honor: factional conflict arises when people think they have less wealth or honor than they deserve.  This can be seen in Trump's rhetoric, Holloway observes, in that he criticizes the American Elites for taking more wealth and honor than they deserve, and he promises that he will overturn this unfair inequality by increasing the economic wealth and social status of the People and reducing the unfair privileges of the Elites.

Are the Trump supporters motivated by economic issues?  Are they mostly members of a white working class who are economically disadvantaged?  Trump's rhetoric about creating and protecting jobs for the working class suggests this.  But some of the political scientists doubted that Trumpism can be explained by economic interests.  Most of those who voted for Trump are in the top 50% of Americans in income.  And in average income black Americans are generally much worse off than white Americans.

In her speech in August of 2016, when Hillary Clinton warned against the "Alt-Right" support for Trump, she quoted from the Wall Street Journal as describing the Alternative Right as a movement that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.”  Some of the political scientists who study the political psychology of "white identity" present evidence that Trump's appeal depends on "white identity politics."  White Americans who believe that they are threatened by non-white racial and ethnic groups were much more likely to vote for Trump than for Clinton.  For these Trump supporters, the motivation is not interest but identity--their identity as white Americans, who have long been the majority in America, but who now fear becoming the minority as more non-white immigrants enter the country.

Three of the speakers at the convention--John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck--have written a forthcoming book about this--Identity Politics: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.  They make two general points about how political scientists can explain Trump's appeal, which have been summarized in a couple of articles (here and here).  First, most voters are not ideologues: they don't organize their political beliefs through some coherent political theory such as liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism.  It should not surprise us, therefore, that Trump could appeal to many republican voters even though he has no consistent commitment to the conservative or libertarian ideas that are thought to characterize the Republican Party.

Their second point is that instead of being motivated by any intellectual ideology, the Trump supporters are indeed motivated by white identity.  This is not the same as white supremacy, because white supremacists are only a small minority of the Trump supporters.  Rather, what moves most of the Trump supporters is a sense that white Americans are losing their dominant status in America--that they are being discriminated against by policies like affirmative action, that they are losing jobs to nonwhites, and that the immigration of nonwhites into America will soon make white Americans a minority.  Through survey research, Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck have shown that while fewer than 5% of white Republicans who think that their racial identity is not important supported Trump, 81% of white Republicans who think their white identity is very important voted for Trump.  Although most of these "white identifiers" are not white supremacists, the Alt-Right can appeal to their sense of white identity.

In some previous posts (here and here), I have argued against the Alt-Right supporters of Trump who appeal to the defense of "ethnic genetic interests" as rooted in human evolution.  I am persuaded that evolved human nature is inclined to tribal thinking, so that we naturally categorize people as us and them, and we naturally favor our group over others.  And while the social conditions of life have often predisposed people to make this in-group/out-group division along racial and ethnic lines, there is no evidence that this predisposition is an innate adaptation of the human mind.  On the contrary, there is lots of evidence that while we are innately inclined to look for cues of coalitional affiliation, the content of those cues depends on social learning; and people in multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies can learn to be cooperative without regard for racial or ethnic boundaries.

Aristotle observed: "Dissimilarity of race is also conducive to factional conflict, until a cooperative spirit develops" (1303a25).  I agree.  Racial differences often divide a country.  But the liberal culture of an open society can promote a multiracial cooperative spirit.

Some of the pro-Trump political scientists on the Claremont panels scorned this idea of America as a multiracial open society, and they did so by appealing to their teacher--Leo Strauss. One of them was Michael Anton, the author of the famous "Flight 93" essay arguing that electing Trump was the only way to avoid the death of America through Clinton's election.  Anton now sits on Trump's National Security Council.  He cited Strauss's letters to Alexandre Kojeve as supporting the Trumpian claim that America must avoid the degrading effects of globalization by asserting its national identity as a closed society.  (Last February, The New York Times published a good article on the Straussian supporters of Trump.)

Similarly, Tom West suggested that protecting American identity might require closing the borders to all but white European immigrants.  As a standard, he quoted from the nation's first naturalization law of 1790, which restricted naturalization to "any alien being a free white person."  In his new book, West claims that "a policy welcoming non-European immigrants would have been rejected by all" during the American founding (267).  At the convention, West appealed to white identity politics by arguing that white Americans were victims of discrimination that favored the interests of minority groups and nonwhite immigrants.  West also said that many young white people are now worried about the attack on their white identity, and, in effect, they are saying "I don't want to die!"  "People want to live," West observed, and white people see their life as defined by their white identity.  He argued that conservatives need to listen to, and appeal to, these people.  He thus seemed to endorse what Trump alt-right supporters like Richard Spencer have called "white identitarianism."

The racial division between Trump voters and Clinton voters holds for both men and women.  At the convention, Jane Junn of the University of Southern California pointed out that the "gender gap" between the Democrats and the Republicans is actually a "racial gap."  Although Democratic presidential candidates usually win the majority of women voters, Republican presidential candidates usually win the majority of white women, which was true for Trump.  And in the case of Trump, white women were voting against a white woman!

Nonetheless, some of those who look to Trump as a defender of American identity seem to define that identity in non-racial terms.  One of the political scientists at the convention explaining Trump's appeal was Katherine Cramer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016).  In Wisconsin, she sees the supporters of Scott Walker and Trump as an us-versus-them resentment against the political elites, but rather than being based on a racial divide, the largely rural white citizens of northern Wisconsin feel resentful against the urban people in Madison and Milwaukee, who show no respect for rural Wisconsin.  Cramer recorded conversations among 39 groups of people in 27 small communities in northern Wisconsin over five years.  These people complained that Wisconsin's state government was controlled by people in the urban areas who favored their own interests, who used government programs to benefit lazy people, including state government employees who advanced their interests at the expense of the hard-working taxpayers.  These rural citizens were the ones who supported Walker's attack on state employee benefits and his efforts to reduce state government generally.  These were also the rural voters who gave Trump his victory.  (This was true across the nation--Clinton lost the rural vote to Trump by huge margins.  Similarly, the Brexit voting in Great Britain was much stronger in rural areas than in London.)

Cramer argues that while these white Republican voters show some evidence of racism--they refer to the highway dividing northern and southern Wisconsin as the "Mason-Dixon line"--their xenophobic resentment is based mostly not on racial differences but on their "rural consciousness" as set against the urban life of Madison and Milwaukee, where the Democrats are the majority.  Some of Cramer's critics have complained that she does not give a good explanation for the causes of this "rural consciousness," except to say that it has been passed down through families.  Some of the critics have suggested that she should have considered the influence of conservative talk-radio in Wisconsin.

So it seems that although the motivations for the Trump voters were complicated, the general pattern is clear: Trump prevailed through a demagogic rhetoric of populist resentment against arrogant exploitative elites.  The question now is what to do about the consequences of electing to the presidency someone who is unfit to fill the office. 

Remarkably, I did not hear any political scientist defend Trump's fitness for the office.  The only defense for the Trump presidency that I heard was the claim that some of the people appointed by Trump were well qualified to promote policies that would reduce the Administrative State, which is the goal of the Claremont folks.  But even on this point, some of the Trump supporters (for example, Stephen Balch of Texas Tech University) admitted that Trump's bad character might ultimately prove more damaging to American conservatism than anything that Hillary Clinton might have done as President.

So far, the harm that Trump can do has been mitigated by his incompetence.  But even an incompetent narcissistic demagogue can be so dangerous that we might hope for his impeachment, or (more likely) his resignation to avoid impeachment.

My earlier post on "Straussians for Trump," with links to other posts, can be found here.