Daily Dose: When "us vs. them" becomes more important than our values

September 11, 2017


The social media response to an excerpt from my last Daily Dose, "Hillary Clinton’s book excerpts show disconcerting lack of progressive values", took me a little by surprise, though it should not have. It should not have, because I've learned something important over the years from my study and work applying cognitive science to politics - the vast majority of people (Democrat or Republican) will believe what fits their frame - no matter what the evidence (or science) says is actually true. Most of the comments were not made about progressive values, but rather about "us vs. them." This is a big problem for Democrats and progressives.


Those who read the blog will know that it was about the importance of effectively communicating progressive values based on empathy to keep progressive ideas alive, and how excerpts from Hillary Clinton's new book showed a lack of those progressive values. I pointed out specific examples from book quotes where Clinton attacking Sanders reinforced conservative authoritarian values based on self-interest and discipline. I pointed out in the entire last paragraph how progressives could start evoking THEIR values, and keep progressive ideas alive.


The comments on social media provided a stark illustration of the "us vs. them" mindset of many Democrats, and how it is preventing us from addressing the lack of real progressive values in Democratic strategy. Instead of considering the problem of "hypocognition" in progressive values and ideas, many people reacted in the "us vs. them" frame, responding to what they perceived as an attack on "us". No one wanted to discuss what our values are as progressives. Unfortunately, "us vs. them" reinforces conservative authoritarian values and suppresses empathy and progressive values (this should be self-evident). Here are some of the "us vs. them" examples (names withheld):


"Can't even wait for the whole book before dissing her again"


"How about reading the book before complaining about it?"


"Bernie -bots complaining that Hillary won't promise them all the freebies Bernie promised?"


 "He (Sanders) started this divisive crap, she's just standing up for herself and her millions of supporters."


"Bernie is just as complex, he's just better at faking being a "straight shooter" -- just like Trump. We select for male, narcissistic, sound-bite champions. Don't believe the hype, he's a con."


And there were more...


If you buy into this "us vs. them" worldview, then there can be no questioning or criticism of existing strategy - even when Democrats (especially in Wisconsin) have had such a terrible election record over the past seven years. I shouldn't have to point out that it's the same mindset that George W. Bush evoked when he said that "either you are with us or against us" in the so-called "war on terror."


Values matter, and so does the language that evokes them. For the most part, the progressive values that make us who we are are unconscious. You don't wake up, look in the mirror, and tell yourself what your core progressive values are every day. They are just part of you, and they are largely unconscious. But most of us also have the capacity to act on conservative authoritarian values, thereby reinforcing and strengthening them - as many top Democrats have shown! 


That's the point - for progressives, in this time of overt conservative authoritarian dominance, it is even more important to make your empathetic, "caring for others" language and action in politics conscious. Especially if you are at the forefront of the Democratic Party. Failure to do so contributes to the death of progressive ideas in our world.