For the last couple days—well, since Friday, anyway—my social circle, which is comprised mostly of college students, military members, and academics, has been shocked by the direction this country is going. When I say shocked, I mean their consciences have been horrified. Even apolitical friends are coming out supporting the fringe Left. Issues they long thought achieved suddenly become issues they fight to achieve. Environmental issues; gender issues, including family planning; LGBT issues—they have been thrusted back years, if not generations, or so they believe. I’m here to tell you all: Don’t fret. All is not lost. This is completely understandable, explainable, and predictable.
Given thousands of years of data (yes, we really have that much) on how societies change, the good news is that we are always shifting to the left, even if an outlying reactionary movement pulls us to the right here and there. That is societies are constantly liberalizing. Even highly traditional societies in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab World are slowly drifting to the left. With each new generation, emancipation is always emerging. Things once considered normal are now ghastly unpopular today. Take for example race issues in the United States.
Note: This graph is not to scale. It is merely a model to illustrate my point.
Refer to the model above. The red line represents the median voter. It is essential that someone running for office gets support from the median voter (although Trump won without the median voter’s support). Social and political realities are clustered around the MV. The error bars on the model represent the full range of political beliefs, from the far left to the far right.
In my model I’m using beliefs about race among voters (obviously blacks couldn’t vote in 1800, so keep that in mind). In 1800 only the fringe Left supported emancipating slaves and outlawing slavery. But society shifted left, and by time slavery was outlawed the median voter supported emancipation. Within a generation only the fringe Right supported going back to slavery. By time the Civil Rights Act was signed, essentially no one supported slavery. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act defied the median voter, but Johnson knew the society was shifting that way. Today essentially no one supports going back to separate but equal (despite what sensationalist news stories claim). The median voter certainly wouldn’t accept such a policy. A segregationist policy would shock the consciences of the median voter, destroying any hope of that political party remaining in power to continue these practices.
Usually the voting preferences of the median voter acts as a control over the decisions of lawmakers. The fact that Trump and some members of the GOP are defying the median voter means that what happened to Clinton in 1994 has been forgotten by Trump. Once again, when you shock the consciences of the median voter you lose their support.
we can apply this to any social issue. Environmental politics is shifting drastically to the right—towards unthinkable extremes—but the median voter is relatively constant on the left. In fact, there might be a counter reaction from the median voter to shift further left. Trump has said he wants to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Considering that only 19% of voters approve of this, and the vast majority of voters support abortion rights in at least certain circumstances (this number has held constant for 40+ years), taking away this right would certainly shock the conscience of the median voter. LGBT rights are relatively fledgling and, in many cases, not fully achieved, but the trend towards emancipation defies the current GOP position.
Even if Trump were successful in appointing justices to SCotUS that turned back the clock generations, the Court cannot take away the voting rights of citizens. The median voter will still hold considerable power in future elections, putting considerable pressure on the GOP to liberalize. In fact, the liberalization of the GOP, which has been occurring since its foundation, is precisely what the Alt-Right is fighting against. Unfortunately for the Alt-Right, it is on the fringes and will never convince a liberalizing median voter.
The present situation can be explained. As society continues to liberalize, people who hold traditional—often religious—beliefs about society feel as if their identities are being erased by society. This terrifies people more than the threat of death. For religiously inclined voters, death is often a transition, but to have that promise taken away by a society that rejects those religious claims means that the devout must react harshly to save their identities and thus their salvation. Fundamentalists fearing for their salvation will attempt to force society back to their position. But given a long enough timeline they will (literally) die off, and their more liberalized progeny will reject the unthinkable positions of their parents and grandparents.
In other words the median voter’s shift towards the left predicts a strong reaction from people who feel their ontological security—and thus their very salvation—is under assault.
Cheer up, friends. The findings from all available research into political psychology, political and social sciences, and hard statistical analyses are on your side. In the words of Tracy Turnblad, Link Larkin, Penny Pingleton, Seaweed J. Stubbs, Edna Turnblad, Wilbur Turnblad, Motor Mouth Maybelle, Velma Von Tussle, and Amber Von Tussle, “You can’t stop the beat!“
The world as a whole might be steadily drifting left just like winter drifts through spring into summer. But here in Aotearoa New Zealand, parts of the country have experienced winter conditions in the middle of summer – a foot of snow in one area. It seems that occasionally some countries take an “unseasonal” lurch to the right. I guess this is the unease many people have.