Let me start by declaring that I will not renege on two promises I made when starting this series of political posts last week:
- I’m going to stop soon
- There will be a Star Trek reference
(Although given the subject matter, breaking a promise would be entirely appropriate.)
There’s one more topic I need to address before I boldy go into the final frontier, something that’s been bothering me ever since I read the following statement from Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.
Those words have become a rallying cry for supporters of both Trump and Clinton, and will likely become the signature moment of this election. I simply can’t end my commentary without reflecting on their significance.
I believe that statement was a mistake, and a foolish one at that, for the following reasons:
- It was politically useless. In both substance and style, every word in a presidential campaign will be broadcast, spun, analyzed, dissected, misinterpreted, abused, hailed, disparaged; candidates must use words strategically, with the knowledge that what inspires their supporters will also be used against them by the opposition. Clinton’s “deplorables” speech, delivered to a friendly crowd already committed to supporting her, was a sermon delivered to the choir, and did nothing to broaden her appeal (her poll numbers have gone down steadily after the speech). To borrow a phrase from tennis, the speech was an unforced error that could only hurt her chances of winning in November.
- Casual attempts to prove its veracity are unreliable. Some Clinton supporters have defended her statement by claiming it was, well, accurate. Support for this argument typically comes from survey data on racial attitudes (such as the one I included at the top of this post) which, if you look at the numbers, do indeed show that nearly half of Trump supporters believe blacks are less intelligent, lazier, ruder, and more violent than whites. Here’s the problem with that data — any person with even a Homerian (Simpson, that is) level of intuition would be able to see the intent of the survey questions, and many would respond less than honestly. You can’t accurately measure racial attitudes by asking people what they believe — you have to observe what they actually do. Do pedestrians cross the street when approaching a group of black teens? Are customers more likely to count change provided by black cashiers? Are black employees more likely to be disciplined by managers for being late to a meeting? That kind of data is far more reliable than survey responses, which provide information that likely underestimates the scope of the problem. Which leads conveniently to my next point.
- It effing reeks of hypocrisy. An implicit argument of the “deplorables” speech, and all of its supporters, is a self-righteous identification of the problem — “it’s them people, causing the trouble.” But let’s take another look at that survey data, shall we? Between a quarter and a third of all responders said yes to most questions, and as stated above, Trump supporters were notably above the average on all responses. But take a look at the responses from Clinton supporters — they are all within single percentage points of the average, making them little if no better custodians of racial morality than the general population. Any honest evaluation of the survey data suggests that racism is a virus that can infect anyone, regardless of political affiliation. In other words, if you believe the survey reveals a sizeable mote in the eye of Trump supporters, you also gotta think you could build a frigging bridge outta all them beams Clinton supporters are lugging around. All the sanctimonious defenses of the “deplorables” speech are rooted in crass hypocrisy, a transparent and pathetic attempt at scapegoating, and need to be thrown back onto the steaming dunghill in Hell from where it was stolen.
It’s not going to happen, but I wish another line from Clinton, delivered last night in the first debate, would supplant the “deplorables” speech as the one memory of this election preserved by history. It was a response to a question on whether she believed the police were inherently biased against blacks, a belief she had suggested in a different campaign speech:
Implicit bias is a problem for all of us, not just the police.
Survey responses, and the more telling interactions in our society, will not improve until we reach that level of understanding.