The Dangers of an American Caste System

John Stuart Mill is a pretty complicated figure in the history of liberty. The phenomenon of Donald Trump is a pretty complicated development in American politics currently. Both had demanding fathers, successful professional careers, and an impact on the world around them, in ways intended and unintended. It’s doubtful Mr. Trump seriously thought he’d get this far as a candidate, and I wonder if Mill could have envisioned how much his contributions to the history of ideas would have promoted the growing rift between utilitarianism and liberalism.

Why compare Mill and Trump? Bear with me for a moment while I try to explain.

Let me begin by clearly stating that I am not now, nor could I ever be, a supporter of Donald Trump’s. As former White House economic adviser Keith Hennessey has written just this week, Trump is unqualified both substantively and morally to lead the United States as President.  Furthermore he is the antithesis of a free-market candidate and too shallow and volatile. I believe in free markets, free trade, freer movement of individuals across borders (albeit with some limits), and less government interference in the economy. Mr. Trump’s policy pronouncements and positions are not consistent with those principles. Moreover, his behavior and the actions of some of his supporters trouble me, as they do others.

However, none of that should stop us from debating Mr. Trump’s ideas and policies. In fact his rise to power should, if anything, give greater weight to one of Mill’s most enduring and profound insights: that society should tolerate as wide a range of free speech as it possibly can. Mill would have opposed Trump just as I do; however, Mill would have supported an open and reasoned discussion of his ideas, rather than the shaming, dismissal, and isolation that his ideas and supporters have endured during the past six months. I think Mill would have shared my disappointment at the lack of discourse between his supporters and his opponents over what his stances mean for the future of the United States and the world.

I don’t mean to idealize American political discourse. Mudslinging, talking in slogans, and ignoring matters of substance have been our venerable traditions since the Founding. “Make America Great” is empty but its emptiness hardly delegitimizes the Trump campaign. What has been disappointing is that even “Morning in America” from President Reagan and “Hope and Change” from candidate Barack Obama got more in-depth examination from pundits and intellectuals than Mr. Trump’s ideas do. He has dominated news cycles with regularity, but never on the merits of his political platform. Sure, he has a carnival barker’s gift for getting attention, but besides attention he also gets millions of primary votes.

Opinion columnists claim he doesn’t stand for anything worth discussing and then scratch their heads trying to understand how anyone could be so foolish as to say they’ll vote for him. After insisting that engaging with his positions would be foolish, the commentators go on to label him fascist, racist, and sexist (all of which he may very well be). He frustrates longtime observers of politics, who scream when he constantly changes or “updates” his specific policy views without registering any drop in his support.

He does float around about abortion, healthcare, other matters, to be sure; but there are two areas in which he is clear as can be. Both of these deeply upset the guardians of the gates of American political power. First, he famously said he would ban the entry of Muslims into the United States until we can “figure out what’s going on.” Second, he has proposed building a wall between the United States and Mexico.

He’s opposed to globalization, which, for all the fruits it has given us, has not been costless. Some of his supporters have every right to argue that they have suffered as job competition, outsourcing, and perceived threats of terrorist violence have grown. In point of fact many white, working-class voters have suffered as the world’s economy has become more integrated.

That does not mean we should close ourselves to trade and greater movement of goods, services, and individuals across international borders, but rather, that it is the nature of an open, free, and liberal society to honestly and freely debate these subjects without shame or qualification. Those of us who support the above have to defend our positions based on the merits and try to convince our opponents they are in error. We cannot deny the fact that some individuals have not been net winners. That needs to be part of the national discussion.

Instead we get foot-stomping from pundits and political know-it-all’s. Rather than make substantive claims about why globalization is good, the intellectual and political class have simply said “Mr. Trump is evil and horrible, and if you support him, so are you.” Unsurprisingly, this type of response has led his supporters to go “underground.”

If you are reading this column you are likely to be an educated person who knows about politics and the law. You are likely to be upper-middle-class and of the same American political “caste” as those who are proclaiming their opposition to Trump on Facebook and Twitter. The same caste of college-educated columnists and journalists are trying to purge respectable political discourse of any consideration of the trade-offs of open borders and cultural conflicts (which I hate to say do exist).

Admit it: You personally know few, if any, people who will admit to supporting “The Donald.”  You picture them as the inbred mountain folk living in Kentucky or West Virginia clinging to “guns and religion.” Or you might—and this is no better—consider Trump’s frontrunner status as evidence that most Republicans are secret racists (although most Republicans do not support him), and that Trump has simply unmasked the hidden agenda the GOP has been harboring since Goldwater.

Be that as it may, two things are obvious. First, there is a gigantic socioeconomic divide between his vocal supporters and his vocal opponents. Second, that divide is worrisome in that it corresponds to a sort of caste system in our country that endangers its democratic foundation. This is what Charles Murray laid out in his trenchant 2012 book Coming Apart, which we should all reread immediately. It will suggest to us that if we want to live according to the principles of America, we need to include our fellow Americans who support Trump in the public space and listen to them, not demonize them.

Why? For reasons that Mill well understood. His most famous work, On Liberty (1859), is rightfully in the canon of the weightiest statements about freedom, particularly freedom of speech. Frequently forgotten is that Mill opens the text by noting that power is a danger, and the critical danger is entrenched political authority. He argues that by liberty the ancients meant “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers.” Think about that in the context of Trump. His supporters believe they have been pushed aside and oppressed by a ruling class. They enjoy his attacks on “political correctness” because they see themselves as the rightful heirs to Mill’s claims.

Mill also writes that among the protections needed to prevent tyranny is

protection against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.

A key bulwark against tyranny according to Mill is free speech, particularly speech that  challenges our norms and sensibilities. There are two reasons why we need such speech. The first is to determine what’s true. Any silenced opinion may be at least partially true and therefore needs to be heard and considered. The second is that silencing dissent, particularly flawed dissent, weakens the truth (which has not withstood the challenge of debate) and strengthens  falsehood by not exposing it to debate. For these two reasons the freedom to express ideas that are deeply troubling to the mainstream, even if dubious or false, is essential to liberty.

Those of us who oppose Mr. Trump are the ones at fault here, not his supporters. We must embrace their concerns, offer fair debate, make our case, and allow them to air their opinions.  Only then can we see wider acceptance of our positions and cast doubt upon the wisdom of imposing tariffs, closing the border, and making globalization the enemy of everything good. We must sharpen our positions in substantive debate, and not merely rely on claims to moral righteousness.

Open debate concerning the global economy and international terrorism is not dangerous. What is dangerous is when large numbers of people come to feel like a caste trapped in economic circumstances, ignored by those above them, and unable to openly articulate their concerns for fear of disparagement by those in authority. Opposition to free trade and greater immigration do not automatically make someone racist. I do not believe that, just because a person is concerned about Islamist terror and competition for blue-collar jobs from outsourcing, he is to be dismissed as a hateful bigot. Doing so only increases the risk that, one day, in our economically and socially fractured country, we may be the minority in our opinions and categorized as hateful and undeserving of the protections that all should be accorded in a society of liberty.

Reader Discussion

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on April 07, 2016 at 18:22:25 pm

A couple of thoughts on this otherwise fine essay.

1) Not all the anti-Trumpsters are as intolerant as you suppose. You are correct that many middle class, (well?) educated (whatever that means) types are far more vocal and mean spirited in their critique of Trump and the Trumpsters. However, many of us, who have had a small parcel of education AND actually BUILT something (no not Romney's dopey 47% comment), but actually ran manufacturing operations and have had to endure the "discomfit" (to put it lightly) of letting go so many truly hardworking working people do not look askance at the Trumpster's position on trade. (Yes, of course, he is apt to be unsuccessful in his efforts). The point is that many of these folks FEEL as if someone is FINALLY speaking for them. Unfortunately, Trump is a blowhard and understands less about the global economy, healthcare, etc. than do many of the working people whom I employed. But there ain't anybody else speaking to them - so what do you expect.

2) Where were all the "well-educated" folks when these people were losing their jobs. comfortably ensconced in a nice position somewhere in academia, government or some think-tank praising the wonders of globalization and the sheer joy of paying $25 less for an HP printer manufactured overseas vs. a domestic one. AND my fellow CONSERVATIVES are the most obvious and vociferous culprits in this regard.

3) Now for our libertarian friends who fail to recognize that national borders actually, or ought to, mean something. All of the "research" pointing to some mythical net benefit from unlimited immigration (legal or illegal, low age and B-1 types as well) have fallen on the deafened ears of those most directly affected by this incessant influx of competition for the American worker. AND RIGHTLY SO! Aside from the economic impact, one ought to consider the socio-cultural impact of such policies and practices. This may very well be a case of the underclass recognizing at long last that their "betters" AIN'T no smarter than they are! Theory meets practice and comes up wanting.

4) If conservatives want to win, they had better drop their support for current immigration practice and "globalization." A better approach may very well be to push for reduction in corporate taxation WHILE explaining to the "underclass" that this may actually help to keep jobs on-shore. romney and the GOP were wrong with their tax cuts for the higher income earners - it did not resonate with the working people of this country. While the Trumpster has not made any significant policy pronouncements on taxation, my own sense from my "tailgating buddies" is that they suppose he will cut their taxes.

5) The final straw leading folks to Trump is the rather RESTRAINED response of the GOP / Conservative elements to the utter inanity of political correctness. What Trumpster is saying is what these folks may be heard to utter at any football tailgating party or in the local pub. Believe me, Trump is not saying anything they themselves have not uttered. But you are correct, such comments do not indicate racism or even xenophobia. Just a desire to return to common sense and recognize that borders, OUR borders, our traditions, ought to mean something.

No, I would not vote for the Trumpster; however, I would vote for my local plumber over Trump or any think-tank promoted politician or academic. And THAT is the appeal of Trump - he is neither a think-tank type (not certain he has ever had any second order thought in his life) nor an academic. My tailgating buddies have had quite enough of those types.

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Image of gabe
on April 07, 2016 at 20:34:31 pm

Ahh! and you would question my questioning of the quality of the education and intelligence of the "upper crust."

Well, there is THIS in which the Fat Lady in a Pantsuit can not navigate her way through a NYC subway turnstile; then again, perhaps it is a metaphor for her tenure as Secretary of State.


Here is something else that populism provides us with: Politicians who are as dumb as a stone or a subway token!

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Image of gabe
on April 07, 2016 at 23:44:08 pm

The implications in this essay that from the observations of the continuing fragmentation of "our" form of social order evidenced by the reactions of some to the attitudes of others regarding a political candidate indicate the conditions for a nascent "caste system" are a bit of a stretch; particularly if one takes "caste" in its widely understood meaning as hereditary or self-perpetuating structures of social rankings and relationships.

In most instances, ours included, the nature of a social order is determined largely by the how its members look upon and regard one another.

Much effort, as here, goes toward identifying social fragmentation and factors in its "causes." If the underlying concerns are to repair or stop that fragmentation, we might always keep some equivalent focus on the factors that brought about and have maintained social cohesion.

We observe social cohesion in social orders where caste systems exist and have existed from time immemorial. So, can that really be one of the "dangers" in the fragmentation of our social order?

Perhaps what we are observing are the development of different factors that will shape a different form of social cohesion - UNLESS, some care is taken to restore (or repair) the factors that shaped and maintained the cohesion we have had.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on April 08, 2016 at 15:20:44 pm

As for the content of the essay, I am concerned that the author, by attacking Trump, is creating a wall of separation between Trump and not just himself but the whole of the Liberty Fund. Trump needs the kind of advice that only wisened political philosophers can give him. If he is elected, the supposedly wise philosophers may find that Trump is deaf to their pleadings, and that possible outcome would be the greatest tragedy of all.

As for myself, finally, after eight years, I get an answer to a closely related question: How could the American public elect as President someone as unqualified and ideologically extreme as Barack Obama?

The answer is that our Statistically Average Voter wants a "man of action."

Our 47-ish year old midwestern lady, mother of 2.5 kids, SAV is not the most educated of people. She is fickle and rather disconnected from the details of politics. She cares about appearances before character. She prefers the candidate who acts like they will step up and start fixing things. She does not understand the complex realities of politics, and she is generally too busy with everyday life to acquire such an understanding.

She recognizes the truth that philosophers and establishment types don't like to change things, so she likes the promising go-getters; especially the ones who address the thing she cares about the most which is the welfare of her children.

Trump is doing good in the polls because he knows how to present himself as a man of action. Men of action are rarely philosophers. They act with or without the advice of philosophers because they need to make things happen.

My question for the author is whether he wants to be a giver of that advice, or whether he wants to be another ignored complaining voice when the voting is over. We all know what the easiest choice is. But is that the most constructive choice?

I suggest that meaningful political dialogue is not for the meek or the weak.

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Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian

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