Political Socialization

In complex social structures everyone does what everyone else is doing. It’s best to act as others act and say what others say – that’s how you survive in school, and certainly how you do well in school, and how you find a wife or husband and how you get and keep a job. It’s called socialization – there are certain things one never says, and this and that one never does. Sometimes your parents tell you that, or your friends do, but most of the time you figure this out through observation, or by telling a really awful joke you thought was funny as hell and being met by stony silence, and then having no friends at all. You learn the rules. You develop a keen sense of what everyone else it thinking, even if you’re not thinking that. That calls for strategic silence – and if you are a rebel, who refuses to follow the rules, you align yourself with the other rebels and follow their rules instead. In 1955 rebels had to have a James Dean leather jacket. In the sixties it was the hair – the famous musical gave us that shorthand. In 2010 the Tea Party folks had their tri-corner hats and their rote lines about wanting “their” country back – say the wrong thing, that maybe it wasn’t “their” country at all, or at least theirs exclusively, and they’d turn on you. One must be careful. Socialization is a powerful force. Ask any teenager. They have a hell of a time figuring it all out.

Everyone has a hard time figuring it out – although advertisers will tell you what everyone is buying at the moment, because anyone who is anyone is, and what cool people are driving, and what music they listen to. The economy depends on willing conformity – things that simply must be purchased to avoid being shunned and shamed by others, even by members of the counterculture. You don’t want to be caught without your arugula. Shame comes in all forms – and in politics things get even trickier. What are we to make of all these people running for office?

Political socialization is a special case. For years Bill O’Reilly has been telling America who the “pinheads” are, and who the “patriots” are, but over on MSNBC they’ll tell you that O’Reilly is a bit of a pinhead himself. There’s competing shorthand – putative norms that sort of cancel each other out – and that sort of thing is for folks who have already made up their mind about which politicians, and parties, and policies, are beyond the pale. Broader norms are established in the press, by pundits who are widely read by those who find cable news tedious and tiresome.

One of those is the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd – lively and sometimes caustic and snarky, who reduces politicians to one-word caricatures. Obama is “Spock” or “Barry” or “Bambi” – she has no use for thoughtful men who won’t just do stuff, no matter what the rules are. She comes from a big Catholic family. Her father was a police inspector – the Irish cop of legend. She doesn’t like weak men. In the run-up to the 2000 presidential election she wrote that “Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct that he’s practically lactating” – and that stuck. He was the wimp leading the “mommy” party. He wasn’t a real man.

None of this was ever about policy of course. This was about certain things one never says, and this and that one never does, in the political world – as everyone knows. Dowd is widely read. Like the advertisers who tell you what everyone is buying at the moment, because anyone who is anyone is, she lets you know what everyone is thinking, as she sees it.

That made her current comments on Donald Trump somewhat predictable:

Trump could explode at any moment in a fiery orange ball. But meanwhile, he has exploded the hoary conventions, money-grubbing advisers and fund-raising excesses of the presidential campaign, turning everything upside down, inside out, into sauerkraut.

It is a fable conjured up in several classic movies: A magnetic, libidinous visitor shows up and insinuates himself into the lives of a bourgeois family. The free spirit leaves, but only after transforming the hidebound family, so that none of them can see themselves the same way again.

That is the profound metamorphosis Trump has wrought on the race. The Don Rickles of reality shows is weirdly bringing some reality to the presidential patty-cake.

She can’t help it, she likes the guy:

Because Trump is so loud, omnipresent, multiplatform and cutting, he’s shaping the perception of the other candidates. Once he blurts out the obvious – Jeb is low energy, Hillary is shifty, Mitt choked – some voters nod their heads and start to see his targets in that unflattering light as well.

Trump has trapped his Republican rivals into agreeing with his red-meat opinions on immigration or attacking him, neither of which are good options. Trump bluntness only works for Trump, and getting into a scrap with him is like being tossed into a bag of badgers.

You have to love it:

The real estate developer has turned a fetish for the biggest and the best – in everything from dinner rolls to skyscrapers – into a presidential vision for “the silent majority.” He’s tapped into a hunger among those who want to believe that America is not a shrinking, stumbling power passed like a pepper mill between two entitled families.

And there’s this:

He was mocked when he said that he got his national security advice from watching “the shows” on TV. But voters know that top diplomats, spooks and generals led presidents down the tragic paths to the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and Iraq. Jeb Bush gets his advice from Paul Wolfowitz, who naïvely bollixed up Iraq and gave us ISIS. And Hillary and top Republicans say they get valued counsel from Henry Kissinger, who advised Nixon to prolong the Vietnam War for political reasons even though he thought it might be unwinnable.

She may be in love, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is having none of it:

Yes, the son of real estate millionaire Fred Trump is, according to Dowd, the champion of ordinary Americans in the battle to wrest control of the Republic from “entitled families.” Dowd writes this in a newspaper whose publisher’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all held the title of publisher before him, a newspaper published in a state whose governor was once campaign manager for his father, also a multi-term governor of New York. And if we may be indelicate, let’s not forget that Dowd’s most famous romantic relationship was with Oscar winner Michael Douglas, the famous Hollywood son of the famous Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas.

There are a lot of entitled families in Dowd’s world. Only some of them upset her.

That may be nitpicking, but the New York Times news folks looked into what is going on here – interviews with voters in Michigan and New Hampshire after Trump events. They found that no one cited his policies as motivation for backing him. They like the fact that he has a brash personality:

His support is not tethered to a single issue or sentiment: immigration, economic anxiety or an anti-establishment mood. Those factors may have created conditions for his candidacy to thrive, but his personality, celebrity and boldness, not merely his populism and policy stances, have let him take advantage of them.

Tellingly, when asked to explain support for Mr. Trump in their own words, voters of varying backgrounds used much the same language, calling him “ballsy” and saying they admired that he “tells it like it is” and relished how he “isn’t politically correct.”

Trumpism, the data and interviews suggest, is an attitude, not an ideology.

Some did say that were especially impressed by Trump because he’s rich, freeing him from the demands of donors and special interests – but that still doesn’t speak to policy. Dowd is smiling, but the Documentarian Ken Burns sees Trump as the racist reaction to President Obama:

We pretend with the election of Barack Obama that we’re in some post-racial society. And of course, you know, we’re not. The Onion magazine got it right when he was inaugurated. It said ‘black man given the worst job in the world.’ And what we’ve seen is a kind of a birther reaction to this. The birther movement of which Donald Trump is one of the authors of is another politer way of saying the N-word. It’s just more sophisticated and a little bit more clever. He’s other, he’s different. What’s actually other and different about him? It turns out it’s the same old thing; it’s the color of his skin.

Trump is no more than that? There’s this – Watch Trump Supporter Yell Out “White Power” During Alabama Rally – so maybe so.

Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy, has a different take on this:

As I said in my “How to Fail” book, if you are not familiar with the dozens of methods of persuasion that are science-tested, there’s a good chance someone is using those techniques against you.

For example, when Trump says he is worth $10 billion, which causes his critics to say he is worth far less (but still billions) he is making all of us “think past the sale.” The sale he wants to make is “Remember that Donald Trump is a successful business person managing a vast empire mostly of his own making.” The exact amount of his wealth is irrelevant.

When a car salesperson trained in persuasion asks if you prefer the red Honda Civic or the Blue one, that is a trick called making you “think past the sale” and the idea is to make you engage on the question of color as if you have already decided to buy the car. That is Persuasion 101 and I have seen no one in the media point it out when Trump does it.

The $10 billion estimate Trump uses for his own net worth is also an “anchor” in your mind. That’s another classic negotiation/persuasion method. I remember the $10 billion estimate because it is big and round and a bit outrageous. And he keeps repeating it because repetition is persuasion too.

Ben Yakas comments:

The scary part is despite recognizing that Trump is a “narcissistic blow-hard with inadequate credentials to lead a country,” Adams can’t bring himself to take a position on Trump.

Which is maybe why, even after their own columnist lambasted him as “a ridiculous parody of a Nietzschean superman” who is “encouraging people to be as uninhibited in their stupidity as he is,” Rolling Stone magazine is reportedly featuring Trump on the cover of their next issue. Even the people who know better can’t help themselves when it comes to Trump.

That columnist was Matt Taibbi with this:

Trump is probably too dumb to realize it, or maybe he isn’t, but he doesn’t need to win anything to become the most dangerous person in America. He can do plenty of damage just by encouraging people to be as uninhibited in their stupidity as he is.

Trump is striking a chord with people who are feeling the squeeze in a less secure world and want to blame someone – the government, immigrants, political correctness, “incompetents,” “dummies,” Megyn Kelly, whoever – for their problems.

Karl Rove and his acolytes mined a lot of the same resentments to get Republicans elected over the years, but the difference is that Trump’s political style encourages people to do more to express their anger than just vote. The key to his success is a titillating message that those musty old rules about being polite and “saying the right thing” are for losers who lack the heart, courage and Trumpitude to just be who they are.

But this was a long time coming:

The political right in America has been flirting with dangerous ideas for a while now, particularly on issues involving immigrants and minorities. But in the last few years the rhetoric has gotten particularly crazy.

Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert proposed using troops and ships of war to stop an invasion of immigrant children, whom he described as a 28 Days Later-style menace. “We don’t even know all of the diseases, and how extensive the diseases are,” he said.

“A lot of head lice, a lot of scabies,” concurred another Texas congressman, Blake Farenthold.

“I’ll do anything short of shooting them,” promised Mo Brooks, a congressman from the enlightened state of Alabama.

Then there’s Iowa’s Steve King, who is unusually stupid even for a congressman. He not only believes a recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage allows people to marry inanimate objects, but also believes the EPA may have intentionally spilled three million gallons of toxic waste into Colorado’s Animas river in order to get Superfund money.

Late last year, King asked people to “surround the president’s residence” in response to Barack Obama’s immigration policies. He talked about putting “boots on the ground” and said “everything is on the table” in the fight against immigrants.

So, all of this was in the ether even before Donald Trump exploded into the headlines with his “They’re rapists” line, and before his lunatic, Game of Thrones idea to build a giant wall along the southern border. But when Trump surged in the polls on the back of this stuff, it caused virtually all of the candidates to escalate their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

For example, we just had Ben Carson – who seems on TV like a gentle, convivial doctor who’s just woken up from a nice nap – come out and suggest that he’s open to using drone strikes on U.S. soil against undocumented immigrants. Bobby Jindal recently came out and said mayors in the so-called “sanctuary cities” should be arrested when undocumented immigrants commit crimes. Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have both had to change their positions favoring paths to citizenship as a result of the new dynamic.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum, polling at a brisk zero percent, joined Jindal and Lindsey Graham in jumping aboard with Trump’s insane plan to toss the 14th Amendment out the window and revoke the concept of birthright citizenship, thereby extending the war on immigrants not just to children, but babies.

All of this bleeds out into the population.

Of course it does. Social norms change over time – “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking…” – and political norms change too. That’s what Cole Porter was writing about in 1934 – and it’s no different in politics. In olden days, politicians didn’t talk about using drone strikes on American soil against undocumented immigrants, but now anything goes.

That’s why Taibbi says this:

Trump isn’t really a politician, of course. He’s a strongman act, a ridiculous parody of a Nietzschean superman. His followers get off on watching this guy with (allegedly) $10 billion and a busty mute broad on his arm defy every political and social convention and get away with it.

People are tired of rules and tired of having to pay lip service to decorum. They want to stop having to watch what they say and think and just get “crazy,” as Thomas Friedman would put it.

Trump’s campaign is giving people permission to do just that. It’s hard to say this word in conjunction with such a sexually unappealing person, but his message is a powerful aphrodisiac. Fuck everything, fuck everyone. Fuck immigrants and fuck their filthy lice-ridden kids. And fuck you if you don’t like me saying so.

This is the new normal:

America has been trending stupid for a long time. Now the stupid wants out of its cage, and Trump is urging it on.

David Atkins sees this:

Most of the commentary about Trump’s immigration stance has focused on his hateful near-fascist rhetoric and his incoherent policies. But Trump’s immigration position is important for another reason: it’s a direct challenge to the big money funders of the GOP. The only reason that the GOP has so far avoided a direct spiral into outright xenophobia is that the establishment at the top of the party is conscious that it needs to please the Chamber of Commerce and the billionaires who actually fund their racket. It takes an army of communications professionals, expert in dogwhistle politics, to align the GOP’s cranky conservative populist base with the interests of its wealthy puppeteers.

That feat is hardest to accomplish on immigration. The Chamber of Commerce wing wants the GOP to adopt a pathway to citizenship for immigrants not just for political reasons (permanently losing the Hispanic vote would be a death knell for the party) but also for financial ones: the employers who make most frequent use of undocumented immigrant labor don’t want their gravy train of underpaid, abused workers to dry up. In conservative circles, the Chamber wing of the party is often called the Cheap Labor wing of the GOP – and many movement conservatives despise it with a passion.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is a direct challenge to the Koch Brothers and the GOP’s other big funders as much as anything else.

Here we have a case of inadequate socialization. The accepted norms contradict each other, and then there’s this:

In a telephone interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Trump vowed to reform the tax laws if elected and said the current system was harming middle class Americans who currently faced higher tax rates than traders on Wall Street. “The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky,” Trump said.

“They are energetic. They are very smart. But a lot of them – they are paper-pushers. They make a fortune. They pay no tax. It’s ridiculous, ok?” …

“Some of them are friends of mine. Some of them, I couldn’t care less about,” Trump said. “It is the wrong thing. These guys are getting away with murder. I want to lower the rates for the middle class.”


Being virulently anti-immigrant and calling for higher taxes on hedge fund managers isn’t a political contradiction. This is part and parcel of Trump’s intentionally play to wedge the GOP’s voters away from its funders. Unlike Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, Trump doesn’t need the Chamber of Commerce or the hedge fund managers because he doesn’t need their money. He can self-fund his own campaign.

And that in itself is a genuinely interesting development, because Trump could in a single campaign make it difficult if not impossible for the puppet masters to keep the troops in line – not only this cycle, but in future cycles as well.

While many of them may not explicitly realize it, many blue-collar white GOP voters who would never vote for a Democrat for cultural reasons, are making a bet that their support for a single, capricious populist plutocrat may save them from the collusive predation of a group of plutocrats who they know don’t care about them. All things considered, that’s not an irrational bet.

Maybe so, but who knows what’s rational anymore? In complex political structures, as in complex social structures, everyone eventually does what everyone else is doing. It’s best to act as others act and say what others say – that’s how you survive. You don’t have to like it, but you will be socialized – if you read Maureen Dowd.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Political Socialization

  1. Rick says:

    Back in the 1980s, when I was publishing a national newsletter for the TV news industry, there was a stretch of time when station general managers across the country actually debated replacing news programming with “reality TV”. And yes, the irony of swapping out actual reality with “reality”, in quotes, seemed lost on most of them.

    So now, according to the “libidinous” Maureen Dowd, we have this:

    It is a fable conjured up in several classic movies: A magnetic, libidinous visitor shows up and insinuates himself into the lives of a bourgeois family. The free spirit leaves, but only after transforming the hidebound family, so that none of them can see themselves the same way again.

    That is the profound metamorphosis Trump has wrought on the race. The Don Rickles of reality shows is weirdly bringing some reality to the presidential patty-cake.

    Nothing like a boring old bourgeois presidential race being insinuated into by a “reality” TV star candidate, and one who, like Ronald Reagan, comes with enough pre-installed media experience to allow him to fool people into thinking he knows what he’s doing. Someone here needs to be reminded that Don Rickles’ outrageous act wasn’t really real, either — although in Rickles’ case, unlike Trump’s, the schtick only worked for people who understood he was putting everyone on.

    In fact, one could almost guess that Donald Trump is popular with people who’s favorite professional sport is one of the let’s-pretend competitions — like professional wrestling, or maybe even “The Bachelorette”.

    But speaking of reality, the one without the quotes, we also need to remind ourselves of the true depth of Trump’s popularity. To illustrate that, you can try this trick in the privacy of your own home:

    Hold up both hands in front of you, with your thumbs folded into your palms, leaving eight fingers showing. Let’s call your left hand “Democrats” and your right hand “Republicans”. For argument sake, and to be generous, we’ll say that Trump is popular with 25% of the Republicans — which is one finger out of the eight. Fold that one finger down, and you see that seven-eighths of us do not like Trump.

    In other words, despite all the hoopla, it’s worth remembering that there’s more of us than there is of them.

    And yes, I realize there’s a joke hidden in there somewhere concerning that one finger that represents Trump supporters, but I gave up looking for it.


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