One Nation, Divisible by What Scares Us Most
It’s a dangerous world. The threats are insidious, lurking undetected until it’s too late. Left on your own, you won’t survive. The government’s job is to protect you.
Many Americans hold some version of this view. But they strongly differ on which threats they fear.
Red America worries about deliberate human action. Blue America dreads unintended, usually inanimate, threats. Red America focuses mostly on the body politic. Blue America emphasizes the body. In the pre-Trump era, that meant conservatives talked about crime, foreign enemies, and moral decay while liberals emphasized environmental poisons, illness, unwanted pregnancies, and material deprivation. 1 As we’ll see, Donald Trump added a twist of his own (and jettisoned the old conservative moral concerns). But the basic people-vs.-things division remains.
Consider two recent New York Times headlines. One frets that “Trump’s F.D.A. Pick Could Undo Decades of Drug Safeguards,” appealing to liberal fears of bad medicines. A second declares that “Trump’s Travel Ban, Aimed at Terrorists, Has Blocked Doctors.” Where the administration sees a human threat, the Times finds a benefit that addresses biological vulnerability.
Or take Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous comparison of Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles in which a few of the candies are poisoned. A colorful variation on the standard probability example of pulling balls from urns, the analogy’s real flaw was that it wildly exaggerated the likelihood of jihadi supporters among Syrian refugees. But to many outraged liberals, what made it offensive, rather than merely wrong, was that it equated people with candy. “They aren’t Skittles. They’re children,” was a typical tweet. In their cultural milieu, unhealthy food is legitimately scary, the source of endless anxiety. Foreigners aren’t. Conservatives, on the other hand, worry less about toxins and more about people.
As the dueling Times headlines demonstrate, both sides suffer from the same essential blind spot: They see -- and often exaggerate -- the threats they fear, while overlooking the dangers of the policies designed to stamp out those threats. A crackdown on immigrants means small towns won’t have doctors. Excessive drug regulation keeps beneficial medicines away from patients who need them. (Indeed, as we come to understand more about genetic variation, regulatory requirements could make the most effective treatments prohibitively expensive.) Both policies could, in the name of protecting the public, actually shorten lives.
Team Red looks to law enforcement and the military for protection, Team Blue to scientists and technocrats. Each despises criticism of its protectors, whether from Black Lives Matter or regulatory skeptics. Each equates the end with the means. Intensive policing and punitive sentencing may fight crime, but they also sweep up minor offenders, sow fear of law enforcement, and shatter communities. Challenge the trade-off and you’ll have few friends on the right. Higher energy prices may fight climate change but they also stifle economic growth and hammer Rust Belt residents. Question the toll and liberals will dismiss you as anti-science.
These debates aren’t really about calculations of risks and rewards. They’re about what’s salient to whom—what scares people most. That’s why both sides so often find themselves swapping anecdotes rather than statistics. Steve Jobs’s biological father was Syrian! Refugees in Germany keep attacking people! Each hopes to make the other -- or the undecided middle -- feel what it feels.
Trump swept into office by upending the public discussion of risks. He bluntly articulated personalized fears of crime and terrorism, heightening those fears with cherry-picked statistics and portraying himself as America’s great protector. And he threw a new threat into the conservative mix. In his inaugural speech, Trump used the word “protect” again and again. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” he declared.
This passage is striking for two reasons. First, Trump embraces protectionism as an ideology rather than an interest-driven patchwork of ad hoc trade barriers. Second, he treats market transactions as deliberate attacks perpetrated by bad (foreign) actors. Outcomes that conservatives have traditionally regarded as the unplanned results of decentralized decisions Trump portrays as intentional injury. And of course he ignores the benefits of global trade and the costs of his “protection.”
One of the biggest such costs is economic brittleness. The strength of the American economy lies in its constant regeneration. Trying to eliminate the churn created by new products and processes, suppressing the dynamism that drives both discovery and disruption, may preserve some jobs for a while. But it makes it harder to adjust to shocks and, over the long run, it’s a prescription for stagnation.
In his 1988 book “Searching for Safety,” the late University of California-Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky laid out two alternatives for dealing with risk: anticipation, the static planning that aspires to perfect foresight, and resilience, the dynamic response that relies on having many margins of adjustment:
Anticipation is a mode of control by a central mind; efforts are made to predict and prevent potential dangers before damage is done. Forbidding the sale of certain medical drugs is an anticipatory measure. Resilience is the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back. An innovative biomedical industry that creates new drugs for new diseases is a resilient device. . . . Anticipation seeks to preserve stability: the less fluctuation, the better. Resilience accommodates variability; one may not do so well in good times but learn to persist in the bad.
Red and Blue America keep fighting over which threats warrant anticipation rather than whether that’s even the right strategy. The result is the ideal of the all-powerful president as protector -- an impossible task and an invitation to abuse. Instead of expecting the government to stamp out every risk, we’d be wiser to cultivate resilience and courage.
Yes, liberals often connect inanimate threats to human villains, notably pharmaceutical, oil, or chemical executives. But outside of TV detective shows, where murder is a normal way of doing business, the threats aren’t intentional human actions.
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