How America’s celebrity obsession weakens the fight against inequality
Why are the poorest Americans still sold on the American dream?
Amy Chua is the John M. Duff Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She was born in 1962, the Year of the Tiger, in Champaign, Illinois. She lived in the Midwest (Go Purdue!) until she was eight, when her father Leon Chua became a professor at UC Berkeley, and her family moved to California. Amy graduated from El Cerrito High School (Go Gauchos!) in 1980.
In 1980, Amy headed East. She graduated from Harvard College in 1984 and Harvard Law School in 1987. While at Harvard Law School, Professor Chua was executive editor of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating, she clerked on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for Chief Judge Patricia M. Wald, who was a wonderful mentor to her (and who performed the marriage ceremony for Amy and her husband Jed!).
Amy practiced for four years with the Wall Street firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, where she worked on international transactions throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America. In 1994, she joined the Duke University Faculty of Law. Amy and her family loved North Carolina! The only problem was that Jed was teaching at Yale. Amy joined the Yale Law School faculty in 2001.
Amy Chua: Well, I happen to be a fan of democracy. I think it has flaws, but there was just no other better system for one simple reason and that is: you can often get a beneficent dictator. A lot of people think that Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore was such a person. He was not corrupt. He actually alleviated a lot of the ethnic conflict.
But here’s the problem: You can never ensure that the dictator will stay beneficent. The better thing about democracy is that, eventually, you can vote them out. If you don’t like the policies, if you don’t like the leaders, you can vote them out.
So, on balance, I think that democracy is the best system. What I think is wrong is that America treats democracy like a panacea. We romanticize it. We think somehow that oh, there’s all this civil war and tribalism and sectarian warfare there—let’s just have some elections! What they don’t realize is that in very divided countries—ethnically divided, tribally divided—democracy can sometimes catalyze group conflict rather than softening it.
A lot of people have puzzled over how so many blue-collar and working-class Americans could possibly have voted for a billionaire born to wealth, born in Manhattan. But it’s actually not a puzzle at all. What a lot of working-class Americans resent is the idea that there’s a rigged system.
That there are these people—arrogant people—controlling the levers of power from afar, somewhere in D.C. and on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
If you look at the surveys, Pew Foundation studies, you find that most Americans, including working-class Americans, actually love capitalism. They don’t want socialism. They still want a system where if you can work hard you can strike it rich, and they want it to be fine to be rich.
Studies show that many working-class Americans actually resent the professional elites more: the very polished, well-educated, snobby professors and journalists and pundits speaking on TV, and that they don’t actually dislike the Kardashians so much—or the billionaires that are jet-setting around. That’s why shows like 'The Apprentice' are so popular.
The Occupy movement did many important things, highlighting the urgency of inequality in this country. But one problem with the Occupy movement is that it was a movement that purported to want to help the poor that didn’t actually include any members of the poor. It was, overwhelmingly, an extremely privileged movement. Not necessarily wealthy, but highly educated and largely from cosmopolitan, urban areas.
And if you look at the interviews of people from other parts of the country, working-class people, blue collar people, it’s not just that they didn’t participate in these activist, anti-inequality movements. They actually were very suspicious of them, and even a little scornful. The interviews have people saying, “Don’t these people have jobs? Don’t they have to work? I’m working three jobs just to put food on the table! How can they be marching and protesting all the time?”
Now that’s a little unfair because a lot of these activist movements have done tremendous good, but it is also true that it is a privilege to have the time to take off work and to do these things.
So there’s a real schism in group identities.
A lot of America’s elites, while they were campaigning for Bernie or Hillary, didn’t really connect with so many of the lower income Americans because, in part, they had a snobby view towards them.
But the point is that a lot of America's political elites, the establishment elites, just really didn’t bother to get to understand the people that supposedly they were trying to help.
It’s amazing to contrast the Occupy movement with the prosperity gospel. The irony is just glaring.
So Occupy was a movement championing, supposedly, the underclasses, but largely driven by elites. The prosperity gospel is a hugely popular movement in America, one of the most powerful religious movements in the United States, that is very largely populated by disadvantaged Americans—including our most disadvantaged minorities. African Americans and Hispanic Americans are flocking to the prosperity gospel.
What is their creed? That God blesses the wealthy. That being rich is divine and that if you pray for wealth hard enough, God will give it to you. And this contrast just shows the tribal chasm between America's haves and have-nots.
You have people purporting to want to help the other side and yet actually scorning the very movements that those people actually belong to.
We have a strange relationship with celebrity culture in America. And in some ways, you could see the victory of Donald Trump as Donald Trump tapping into this obsession with celebrities. It’s almost like he’s created a kind of billionaire populism where he’s tapping into this desire for a lot of working-class people to rise in a system where they can no longer rise—where there’s so much inequality that they can’t just make it with hard work, and they romanticize that. They think, “You know what? If I go on American Idol or The Voice or Shark Tank maybe I can hit it big.” And they actually glorify all the Desperate Housewives or the Kardashians or the celebrity musicians and actresses. These are beloved figures. They’re not hated at all. It’s like the royal family in England.
The desire for the American Dream is so powerful that people will cling to it even when they have no chance. Even when the American Dream turns their backs on people, mocks them. A lot of Americans would sooner turn on immigrants, outsiders, even reason itself than turn on the American Dream.
A lot of people think why is this happening now, you know. What’s going on with our society? Well, it’s always been there. A lot of these issues have always been there. There have always been these male bosses that have done these terrible things. So it’s not like it’s all happening now. It’s just that finally certain groups voices are allowed to be heard.
It’s the same with a lot of diversity issues, you know. People will say, why now are there so many minorities complaining on campuses or on this organization? It used to be so smooth. Things used to work so well.
Well, that’s because so many voices used to be suppressed. So, in a way, I think it’s healthy what’s often experienced as turbulence and chaos—“oh my gosh, everything’s going haywire”—is actually a healthy rising of certain voices that historically have not been allowed to speak. And there are lots of different groups. It’s along all different kinds of lines—gender, race, ethnicity—it’s everything.
Deepening inequality is escalating a tribal conflict between the haves and the have-nots in America. But it's not playing out in the most obvious way: the beef of working-class, blue-collar Americans isn't with Manhattan-born billionaires and Instagram influencers—it's with garden variety professional elites. "If you look at the surveys, Pew Foundation studies, you find that most Americans, including working-class Americans, actually love capitalism," says Yale professor Amy Chua. "They don’t want socialism. They still want a system where if you can work hard you can strike it rich, and they want it to be fine to be rich." Why did low-income America elect a billionaire president? It's no puzzle, says Chua. Despite the data on inequality and the dismal stats on upward mobility, Americans are still sold on the American Dream. It's the narrative peddled by American Idol, the Kardashians, and jet-setting celebrities—that you too can somehow climb the ladder. The richest of the rich are adored, not scorned. Chua points out a glaring irony: while the overly privileged Occupy Wall Street movement was trying to raise up America's poor, America's poor were flocking to the enormously popular prosperity gospel. Its creed? That God blesses the wealthy, and if you pray hard enough the money will come. "The desire for the American Dream is so powerful that people will cling to it even when they have no chance," says Chua. It's that dream that sustains inequality from the bottom up. Amy Chua is the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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