Pages -- horizontal menu

Me Against the World

by Berry Friesen (August 21, 2017)

Greater empathy for Trump supporters isn't high on your priority list, I know. Yet here I am--writing in the wake of Charlottesville--with yet another post trying to understand Trump supporters. True, it would be easier to  "judge" them with some pejorative term, but "easier" is not the point; building an anti-imperialist movement is the point.  

Today, I’ll venture into social psychology to highlight a factor that contributes to Trump's support: widespread American anxiety about rapid social change.

Zigmunt Bauman, a Polish-born sociologist, coined the phrase “liquid modernity” to describe our frenetic, constantly changing world.  Many intellectuals say we are living in a “post-modern” world, but Bauman insists it is more accurate to say we live in a hyper-modern era.  Wikipedia describes Bauman’s view of “liquid modernity” this way:

“It is a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the 'liquid modern' man as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes more—such as political or sexual orientation—excluding himself from traditional networks of support, while also freeing himself from the restrictions or requirements those networks impose.

“Bauman stresses the new burden of responsibility that fluid modernism places on the individual—traditional patterns (are) replaced by self-chosen ones.  Entry into the globalized society (is) open to anyone with their own stance and the ability to fund it . . . The result is a normative mindset with emphasis on shifting rather than on staying—on provisional in lieu of permanent (or 'solid') commitment—which (the new style) can lead a person astray towards a prison of their own existential creation.” 

Applying Bauman’s ideas to national political scene, we might reasonably say that the anxiety of constant change is part of what causes people to respond positively to a leader who will slow things down and demonstrate firm commitment to familiar themes.

Let’s step back a bit and consider this question: in our journeys through life, how does authority function for us?  What legitimizes authority, thereby prompting us to follow where it leads?

One way to visualize the thought process this entails is to imagine a horizontal plane that narrows sharply at each of two ends.  At one end stands the solitary individual; at the other, the empire. We could think of this tableau as a representation of our life-long process of negotiating life.

The empire’s authority rests on its violence and power, which it holds to such an overwhelming degree that it seems absurd to place an individual (me) on the same plane.  Nevertheless, we all live together in the same time and space, so cope we must.

In the pre-modern worldview (and to a lesser degree in the modern worldview), many collective structures—most human, some mythic, some ideological—stand between the empire and us individuals, helping us cope.  Each structure is durable and resilient; each claims to be a moral authority, available to guide us through the journey of life and buffer us from forces that could easily overwhelm. To the extent that I embrace an authority, it provides content, direction and meaning to my life and a degree of collective strength as well.

We can quickly list some of the authorities available to us:

Kinship (parents, siblings and cousins, clan, ancestors)
Religious (sacred texts, creeds, clergy, congregations, moral codes, hierarchies)
Educational (schools, teachers, academic disciplines and methods)
Vocational (businesses, apprenticeships, guilds, professions, labor unions)
Associational (neighborhoods, civic organizations, recreation, clubs)
Experiential (ethnicity, military service, travel, accomplishment or loss)
Public (governments, lawmakers, law enforcement, judges, military service)

Typically, these authorities are structured (institutionalized) in some visible way.  A healthy society has many of them.  Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of US society, spoke with great admiration of the plethora of such “mediating institutions” in 19th century America.  He also said America would survive as a democracy only if those structures continued to thrive.

So here is the problem: "liquid modernity" is undermining the authority of mediating structures. For some of us, this assertion may require much more discussion, but for most, I assume it can be stated as a bald fact: we no longer easily accept the authority of mediating structures to tell us how to live.

For sake of brevity, we can list a few of the huge changes within our world that have made it increasingly easy to ignore and avoid authority structures, either because we prefer to be autonomous or because we have concluded these structures no longer deserve our respect.

Easy geographic mobility
Instant worldwide communications
The inherently destructive and insatiably greedy nature of capitalism
Global liquidity of capital 
Mass media and entertainment
Elevation of diversity and multiculturalism as leading values
Scandals, corruption, malfeasance

Generally, we don’t associate these factors with a political party, so these factors are not likely to drive our electoral choices.

But there is an additional factor—one highly corrosive to mediating institutions—that is strongly associated with liberalism, higher education and the Democrats.  This is the post-‘60s educational and intellectual emphasis on the primacy of the individual and the consequent necessity to deconstruct social authority structures that restrict individual autonomy.

Generally, such deconstruction projects proceed by (a) analyzing the dynamics of power within structures of authority, (b) demonstrating how those power dynamics favor some people at the expense of others, and (c) stigmatizing those dynamics as unjust and immoral.  Generally, these stigmas are portrayed as forms of bigotry:  sexism, racism, heterosexism, transphobism, nativism, sectarianism, etc.

These deconstruction projects have been easy wins for liberals because evidence justifying claims of "bigotry" is not hard to find. Even a nuclear family without “unjust” power dynamics is almost unimaginable. Thus, liberalism has become associated in the popular mind with (a) the discrediting of mediating structures and their claims of authority over us; and (b) exalting each individual's heroic quest to fashion an identity, discover purpose and forge a meaningul life.

Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the liberal point-of-view this way:

“Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value.  People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own fulfillment.  What this consists of, each must in the last instance, determine for him-or-herself.  No one else can or should try to dictate its content.” *

In my view, the anxiety triggered by this worldview is a factor in people turning away from the Democrats and toward the obviously unqualified Donald Trump.

If we assume this is correct, what does it suggest for the future?

First, to recognize why it’s getting more and more difficult to vote for liberals (something I’ve usually done throughout my life).

Second, to admit that "liquid modernity" is flat-out scary, leaving us isolated and alone against the empire.  I’d like some of those social supports back, even at the price of giving up some of my vaunted autonomy and independence.

Third, to ask:  do the people deconstructing our mediating institutions bear any responsibility for the consequences of endless deconstruction?  Are they really foolish enough to imagine we will manufacture righteous substitutes out of whole cloth? Or that we can survive, naked against the empire?
*  The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).


  1. Surviving naked: Some of us have disciplines--we run, or do yoga, or meditate, or read scripture, or regularly meet with a committed affinity group, be it a congregation or fishing buddies. I'd like to add something to this mix: that we regularly meet with a committed group containing our ideological/political/economic enemies. We need each other, to keep each other honest, to help us see beyond our blinders, and to give us space to move. I take it as a spiritual discipline. To really challenge empire, we have to undermine its foundation--our fear of each other.

  2. Most of the social structures we inherit (family, church, etc) introduce us to a considerable degree of ideological/political/economic difference (though perhaps not "enemies"). In contrast, most of the affinity groups we construct to replace those traditional structures do not reflect much difference. So your point is well taken, John; we need to recognize our need for people with perspectives different from ourselves and then let that recognition affect the kind of affinity groups we construct/join.