Why U.S. Election Politics Breeds Divisive Fears and Angers

by | Nov 11, 2020 | Elections

Michelle Obama’s words imply that if there is to be healing and uniting it means that all those who think the "wrong" way must come over and only think according to the anti-capitalist "progressive" worldview of those on “the left.”  
Photo Gage Skidmore

The recent presidential election confirms and reinforces what many political observers and common citizens have increasingly known and noted: Americans are seriously divided over the problems they see facing society, and the means and methods to solve or reduce their impact on all of us.

This division of views is, of course, partly shown in the number of votes cast for the two major political party candidates in the 2020 presidential election. With the final tally still not completed, over 75.2 million Americans voted for Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden, and more than 70.8 million voters cast their ballot for the incumbent Republican president, Donald Trump. While the votes separating them number at least 4.4 million, that represents barely a 3 percent difference between them from a total of more than 146 million votes, combined, that they received.

Another way of saying this is that nearly 48 percent of these voters supported the losing candidate. Hardly a landslide or an unequivocal mandate, especially considering that an additional over 1.6 million votes were cast for a third-party presidential candidate, Jo Jorgensen, representing the Libertarian Party. This means Biden’s margin of “victory” is less than 51 percent (at the time of this writing).

Americans Divided on the Most Important Issues

But the divisions run deeper than only this “showing of hands.” Exit polls also showed huge differences in what voters consider the important issues of the day over which they made their ballot casting decisions. Thirty-five percent of voters said the state of the U.S. economy was the most important issue in making up their mind as to who to vote for, but out of that 35 percent, 82 percent indicated they voted for Trump and only 17 percent said they voted for Biden for that reason.

Twenty percent of the respondents said racial inequality was the most important issue to them, but out of this 20 percent, 91 percent were Biden supporters and only 8 percent were Trump voters. Of the 17 percent who declared that the coronavirus pandemic was the most important issue to them, 82 percent voted for Biden and only 14 percent for Trump. Eleven percent replied that crime and safety was the most important issue; but of them only 28 percent had voted for Biden, while 71 percent voted for Trump. Finally, 11 percent said that health care policy was the most important matter for them in deciding their vote, and of these 63 percent were for Biden and 36 percent for Trump.

Not only is the American electorate divided on what they consider the most important policy issues facing the country, but they are widely apart on which presidential candidate and the implied policies in voting for that person reflected their perception of solutions to them. It seems to be a somewhat tall task to successfully construct a fully coherent “social welfare function” out of these differing views of the issue priorities and the implied policies to handle them.

Anger and Fear over Electing the President

The division of views and attitudes is deepened based upon some Pew Research Center findings in their surveys of opinions released in October 2020. Respondents were asked whether they would be angry if the opposing candidate were to win instead of the one they were supporting. Of those saying they were Trump supporters, 31 percent said they would be angry if Biden won the presidential election, while 54 percent of Biden’s supporters said they would feel that anger if Trump were to be re-elected.

This stated anger if the “wrong” guy were to be in the White House for the next four years is not too surprising if you consider that in answer to another Pew Research question, 90 percent respectively, of both Trump and Biden supporters said that if the opposing candidate were to win “it would lead to lasting harm to the U.S.” And only 8 percent, respectively, said there would be no lasting harm to the country if the opposing candidate sat in the Oval Office.

Of course so many of Biden and Trump’s supporters said they, respectively, would be angry if their candidate lost. The two sides saw the other’s presidential hopeful as threatening long-term damage to the country for years to come. In addition, 57 percent of Trump supporters have viewed this year’s presidential election to be between “right and wrong,” and while less still a large number of Biden’s supporters, 47 percent, said the same.

Yet, at the same time, 86 percent of Trump supporters and 89 percent of those behind Biden told the Pew Research survey that whoever won the presidential election, they “should address concerns of all Americans.” That is, the winner should be a unifier and not a divider.

Healing and Uniting Means Accepting the Biden Agenda?

On Friday, November 6th, when the presidential vote count was showing Biden pulling ahead of Trump in a number of crucial states, but with no news media or other official outlet yet calling the outcome, Joe Biden told an audience that his vote count showed that he would be declared the winner and that the 74 million who had voted for the Democrat ticket had “given us a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, climate change, systemic racism.” Yet, the next day on Saturday, November 7th, Biden said, “With the campaign over, it is the time to put the anger and harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation. It is time for America to unite. And to heal.”

But some people must not have gotten the “healing message.” Also on Saturday, former president, Barack Obama, congratulated Joe Biden on his win, and his vice-presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, for being the first black woman to hold that office. Former First Lady Michelle Obama extended similar congratulations but added that it needed to be remembered that, “tens of millions voted for the status quo, even when it means supporting lies, hate, chaos and division.” Hardly words meant to win friends and influence people among those who voted a different way, if the goal is trying to bring people together by putting aside anger and harsh rhetoric, at least according to Joe Biden.

What Michelle Obama’s words imply is that if there is to be healing and uniting it means that all those who think the wrong way must come over and think the right way. That is, any views and actions considered to be racist, sexist, hurtful, and divisive from the standpoint of “progressive” political correctness, must be eliminated, and replaced by an acceptance of the entire systemic racism, identity politics, cancel culture, Green New Deal, and a general anti-capitalist worldview of those on “the left.”

“Inclusiveness” requires a shared conception of the better society to come with increased government intervention and redistribution, more pervasive centralized regulation and control, along with greater paternalistic planning of people’s lives and fortunes. “Unity” means willing acceptance of all this, with any differences of opinion merely on how one implements and imposes more of the politically planned society, and not any disagreement or challenge of its premise.

Division and Anger Come for Winner-Take-All Politics

Divisiveness, anger and opposition are inescapable when either one side or both sides of the political debate over the nature and necessities of the society require the use of “activist” government power to bring the goals to fruition. The reason for this is that democratic politics is a winner-take-all system of decision-making and action.

For instance, Joe Biden has said more than once that, “if necessary,” he would work to impose a national mandatory face masking. He has said that government will fight the coronavirus. He states that America suffers from a “systemic racism” that only heavy-handed government can cure. And that the world faces climate changes that only government command and control can find answers for.

Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, is insistent that America is pervaded with racist and sexist discrimination that oppresses people of color and women. Plus, she has made it clear that, in her view, it is not sufficient for all people to receive an equality of individual rights before the law; no, it is necessary to use the powers of government through regulation and redistribution to assure an equality of outcomes.

The problem is that, in general, either each person has the same recognized and respected individual rights before the law, with inevitable differing results and outcomes among people. Or, the government attempts to impose some benchmark of measured equal outcomes on all, but only by treating individuals in differentiated unequal ways. Kamala Harris’s goal is to hammer us down into those equalized outcomes, whether you want it or not.

Markets Offer Diversity, Politics Imposes Uniformity

This gets to the heart of the reason behind the clear anger and fear that is expressed by both Biden and Trump supporters about a defeat of their candidate and victory of that of the opponent. Everything increasingly becomes an “affair of state,” by which I mean all of life becomes more and more politicized. The nature of almost all political “solutions” to some supposed “problem” is that it imposes one answer to the question.

In the workings of the market arena of the peaceful and voluntary civil society, there are as many avenues to deal with various social issues as individual human beings who imagine and attempt to implement ways of dealing with them on their own or in mutual agreement with others who they can find to collaborate with them.

Not only does this set free multitudes of minds to possibly discover means and methods to deal with the problems of concern, but it allows competing possibilities to be experimented with at the same time, since the very nature and usefulness of competitive discovery processes is that it accepts the fact that it can never be known with certainty who or how an answer may be found until it is tried.

It is always easy to see the answer after it has been unearthed. But before the fact, there is no way of knowing for sure which lines of inquiry really are dead ends or a misdirection of research and resources. Markets offer the possibility and opportunities for rival attempts of finding out what may work. Therefore, what appears to some as wasteful, competitive duplication of effort may, in fact, be the most creative and cost-efficient institutional way to foster problem-solving in society.

Government “taking charge” to solve the problem preempts and co-opts much or all of this. The political authority drains the private sector of financial and real resources via either taxes or deficit spending to fund the selected and privileged attempt to find the answers. It, thereby, narrows the field of potential discovery. Or, government regulations and restrictions may, at the same time, prohibit or hamper alternative avenues of discovery that may end up preventing or postponing a better answer than the government-backed and permitted lines of inquiry.

Delusions and Misunderstandings about What Comes “Free”

But what causes the degrees of divisiveness, anger, and fear among people today about the outcomes of political elections, as the opinion polls seem to highlight, is that this type of government preempting and co-opting touches matters close to many people’s personal concerns and values.

How and who will provide categorized people with health care, housing, education, retirement funding, employments and incomes, business opportunities and research funding? Because of confused meanings in words and ignorance concerning the wider consequences from implementing various types of policies, many people really do not know or understand what they are for or against in supporting one set of policies compared to some other.

There are people who, when they are told that health care or higher education will be “free,” give no or little reflection on the reality that nothing is “free” in the way implied. Someone will have to be taxed to provide the funding that makes all these things available at little or no financial cost to others. And among those “some” who will be taxed to do so will be many of the very people who are thinking that these “good things” will be coming their way at no expense.

Politicians, bureaucrats and “progressive” intellectuals assure people that they are “entitled” to such things just because they are human beings or members of a particular society. Indeed, it is their “right” as a person. But if someone has an entitlement “right” to something that involves the supplying of real goods and services, there must be someone who reciprocally is obligated to provide the real and financial means to supply them. When it is the government that is the conduit to assure these “rightful” entitlements to one group of people they must, inescapably, compel a forced “giving” from others to cover the expenses.

If any reflection on this crosses a person’s mind about the rightfulness or justice of compulsorily taking from Peter to transfer to Paul, any questions or twinge of conscience is smoothed over by saying that the required taxed funds will come from the higher-income “one percent,” and how could anyone have become that rich in comparison to others, other than somehow cheating or exploiting or oppressing their fellow human beings? Thus, making “them” pay is simply a rightful taking of some of the ill-gotten gains that should not have been theirs to begin with.

Government as the Political Parent over All of Us

Besides, are we not all family members of a community of people living in the same society? Don’t family members share and sacrifice for each other? Don’t mom and dad do without so the children may have? And aren’t siblings expected to help their brothers and sisters even when they don’t want to and would rather do other things?

We, therefore, owe it to each other. Just as mom and dad may have to “insist” that one of the children fulfills their family obligations, just like the others in the family are expected to, the government, which symbolizes and serves as our societal mom and dad, must see to it through imposed regulation and compulsory redistribution that each of the society’s family members do their part, their “fair share.”

Whether the issue is “guaranteed” national health care, or “free” college education for all, or a “living wage” at $15 or more an hour, or a “fair” representation in various walks of life measured by percentages of people based on gender and race, or assuring neither “hurtful” nor “harmful” words or deeds by restricting what people may say and how they can associate an interact with others, everyone’s options and fate and happiness is now tied up with whether or not your political candidates for the presidency, Congress and state-level legislative houses win the current and future elections.

The anger, hate and fear among voters come from the uncertainty and concern that the other party’s political dads and moms will be elected to government offices with the legitimated authority and power to make each and every one of us conform to and be confined within what our elected paternalist parents coerce us into, about how we shall live, work, earn, act, speak, and prosper.

Modern democratic politics, therefore, poisons every facet and corner and aspect of human life and social existence. This is and will remain inescapable for as long as government’s reach extends beyond merely protecting our respective lives, liberty and honestly acquired property from the aggressions of others.

Herbert Spencer on What Government Is and Is Not Good For

Nearly 165 years, the British laissez-faire liberal political philosopher and sociologist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), published an article, wondering, “Representative Government – What is It Good For?” (1857). At a time when the hope and dream in representative democracy was still on the inspiring ascendency, Spencer proceeded to point out its weaknesses and shortcomings. (Herbert Spencer, Man versus the State [Liberty Fund, 1981] pp. 331-382)

Democratic elections are often more about the personalities of those running for political office, he said, and not about their competency and experience with managing the affairs delegated to them in the political system. Once elected, those in political office and others around them often come to have one overriding purpose: reelection and the perks and powers that come with government positions.

Helping those who have placed them in office with bestowed privileges and favors frequently seems to be an overarching goal of those elected on the political scene. Able to spend other people’s money, those in political office give far less thought to waste and fiscal irresponsibility than those managing and investing their own money in a private enterprise and their own private life.

Rarely does it cross the minds of those in government to ask what government should be limited to doing, rather than focusing on proposals for what government will do, given the changing temper of the political winds. Said Spencer:

“The original and essential office of a government is that of protecting its subjects against aggression, external and internal . . . This essential work, discharged with extreme imperfection, is joined with endless other work; the government has a controlling action over all conduct, individual and social – regulates dress, food ablution, prices, trade, religion – and exercises unbounded power . . .

“This comprehends the regulation of nearly all actions going on throughout society . . . [Those in political authority] unhesitatingly take on themselves to provide for countless wants, to cure countless ills and to oversee countless affairs . . .

“The distress resulting from improvidence, they undertake to remove; they settle the minimum which each ratepayer shall give in charity; and how the proceeds should be administered . . . Certain that social necessities will not cause a sufficiently rapid spread of knowledge, and confident that they know what knowledge is most required, they use public money for the building of schools and paying teachers; they print and publish State-school-books, and they employ inspectors to see that their standard of education is conformed to . . .

“They determine how houses will be built, and what is a safe construction for a ship; they take measures for the security of railway-traveling; they fix the hour after which public houses [bars] may not be open; they regulate the prices chargeable by vehicles plying the streets of London; they inspect lodging houses; they arrange for burial-grounds; they fix the hours of factory hands. If some social process does not seem to them to be going on fast enough, they stimulate it; where the growth is not in the direction which they think most desirable, they alter it; and so they seek to realize some undefined ideal community.” (pp. 353-354; 381)

Limiting Government Can Narrow the Divisions and Damage

These interventions were criticized and challenged by Herbert Spencer, by the way, at the very time when a relatively laissez-faire outlook was supposed to be the reigning regime in 19th century Great Britain!

All of these interventions, regulation, controls, restrictions, redistributions and manipulations, Spencer reasoned, cause tension, hostilities, and divisiveness in society. One group of individuals are put upon by government in various and sundry ways for the benefit and purpose of others in society. Those in and around government use their positions and taxed revenues and resources to serve their own purposes and those of the people who have put them and keep them in political office.

Politics becomes a life and death struggle, a fight to the finish, since the winning side with the majority upper hand is able to impose and enforce its views and values on all in society. Only by limiting government to those few though essential functions can these tensions, angers, and divisions be reduced or even removed. Explained Spencer:

“The objections to representative government awhile since urged, scarcely tell against it at all, so long as it does not exceed this comparatively limited function. Though its mediocrity of intellect makes it incompetent to oversee and regulate the countless involved processes which make up the national life; it nevertheless has quite enough intellect to enact and enforce those simple principles of equity which underlie the right conduct of citizens to one another . . .

“Stupid as may be the average elector, he can see the propriety of such regulations as shall prevent men from murdering and robbing; he can understand the fitness of laws which enforce the payment of debts; he can see the need for measures to prevent the strong from tyrannizing over the weak; and he can see the rectitude of a judicial system that is the same for rich and poor . . .

“Again, in respect of this all-essential function of government, there is a much clearer identity of interest between representative and citizen, than in respect of the multitudinous other functions which governments undertake . . . The complexity, incongruity of parts, and general cumbrousness which deprive a representative government of that activity and decision required for paternally-superintending the affairs of thirty millions of citizens; do not deprive it of the ability to establish and maintain the regulations by which these citizens are prevented from trespassing against one another.” (pp. 377-379)

Limiting Government Will Reduce Political Angers and Fears

The only longer-run way to reduce these divisions and fears that people have about each other in the political sphere is by reducing and narrowing what government does and how. Human affairs have to be depoliticized, denationalized, and moved back to the private arena of personal choice and voluntary associations and exchanges both inside and outside of the marketplace.

From this will come real diversity, inclusiveness, and social harmony and justice by ending the imposition of one set of priorities, preferences and policies on all due to a successful coalition of groups that have formed a sufficient majority in an election. Until this happens, future opinion polls will continue to highlight the tense divisions that persist in American life. And each group of voters will go on viewing opposing groups as threats to the very well-being of society.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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