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Ricochet Spitefulness

Ricochet Spitefulness

Large parts of the U.S. electorate acted on a surprising negative impulse in the 2020 election, a phenomenon that likely will hang around.

Adam Garfinkle

Human nature can be quirky, but beneath every quirk inevitably lies some kind of logic syntax, some constellation of causal assumptions that orders how questions are generated and rules of evidence are shaped. One such quirk concerns a social science notion called “the negative follower effect.”

I encountered the “negative follower effect” in War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, a 1973 book by the then-young political scientist John Mueller. The phrase sounds fancy but really just means that some people are, when polled—and so become atoms that combine to form molecules of public opinion—inclined to favor the targets, human and ideational, of whichever group has most pissed them off lately. The enemy of my enemy—if I despise my enemy enough—is sort of my friend, in other words. Mueller could have called the phenomenon he observed backlash, a boomerang effect, or even ricochet spitefulness. But most social science academics never use plain language when they can avoid it.

Why raise the negative follower effect now? Because the outcome of this past November’s presidential election was nearly determined by it, and because the phenomenon will remain important for the foreseeable future, given the collapse of the Republican Party into a bigoted, conspiratorial-minded sewer.

While the November 2020 election did not re-elect Donald Trump to the presidency, it did foil Democratic expectations of a broader triumph. The Democrats failed to take the Senate outright as widely predicted, lost ground in the House, and lost seats also in most state House contests. Three sources of a layered negative follower effect explain why, all having to do with politically weaponized identity politics concerning ethnicity and “race:” immigration policy; policing abuses; and Kamala Harris.

All told, the Trump Administration’s pathetic and tragic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic probably doomed its re-election prospects; Trump’s own campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, has reported as much. But the pro-Trump negative follower effect that followed the George Floyd unrest, piled atop other energies characterized by the negative follower effect, nearly offset it to get him re-elected anyway.


In recent decades, immigration has been a major source of the nation’s hemorrhaging of social trust. This is partly a simple result of the fact that large-scale and rapid immigration of groups culturally distinct from the national Leitkultur tends to depress social-trust quotients, until these groups become acculturated. In American history acculturation has typically occurred in one or two generations, after which the trust-depressing effects fade away and the cultural diversity bonus kicks in. Importantly, the “fade away” part of this description does not apply to African-Americans for what ought to be obvious reasons: no other groups of people were dragged to America as slaves, had their families divided, their cultures suppressed, their people kept illiterate by law, and then, after formal emancipation, were subjected to legalized bigotry, theft, coercion, and violence.

Today the percentage of non-native born and first-generation legal U.S. residents (citizens and green-card holders) is higher than it has been at any time in American history since the 1890s, and only a modest percentage of these newcomers are European in origin. The pace of acculturation has slowed, too, not just because the newcomers are less culturally kindred to the founding majority, but also because establishment voices no longer insist on it. We don’t have American Day gatherings and speeches anymore. Instead, there is widespread official English-Spanish bilinguality, even though this arguably slows assimilation and certainly does nothing to help it.

The meaning of “multiculturalism” has flipped its valence over time. The “unum” in e pluribus unum used to be more important than the “pluribus.” Read the following quote, and try to imagine a major national political figure being generally applauded for saying it, including by new arrivals:

[It] is an outrage to discriminate against any [immigrant] because of creed or birthplace or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.

That was President Theodore Roosevelt speaking in 1907.

But another facet of this source of erosion of social trust is political. Polarization partly drives the mutual suspicions that the other party is essentially using immigration policy to steal the country’s identity.

Many Democrats believe that Republicans want to suppress immigration in order to keep the nation’s power and wealth structures “white.” The only exceptions, say these Democrats, are corporate Republicans, whose predatory take on capitalism sees immigrants, and especially illegal and poorer ones, as a means of maximizing profits and harming trade unions.

Many Republicans, for their part, believe that the Democrats have been trying to render the GOP electorally extinct by changing the nation’s demography as rapidly as possible through immigration. The clearest declaration of this fear was candidate Trump’s remark on the September 9, 2016, episode of The Brody File on the Christian Broadcasting Network:

I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in and they’re going to be legalized and they’re going to be able to vote and once all that happens you can forget it. You’re not going to have a Republican vote. And it’s a hard number. Already the path is much more difficult for Republicans.

In light of what happened in November, a good bit of this is ironic. GOP nativist paranoia is based on some tenuous assumptions—for example, that virtually all Hispanics vote Democratic and want more “La Raza” immigration. None of this is true, as recent election data out of Texas shows: Trump probably won the state because of Hispanic voters choosing him over Biden—a fact that should bother identity-politics-fixated Democrats as much as it does Republicans. Most “Hispanics” living in the United States—an absurd one-size-fits-all label in the first place, of course—don’t consider themselves “non-white.” Plenty don’t vote Democratic—either because they are Catholic-reared social conservatives or because they don’t want more immigration, legal or otherwise.

Why the anti-immigrant attitude? A descant to the immigration file concerns jobs and wages: Republicans often claim that both legal and illegal immigration undermines the labor power of working-class Americans, whatever their race or ethnicity. This pitch is designed to provoke resentment against Democrats, and it works. It should work; contrary to the nativists’ demography arguments, it is mostly true. So when “woke” Hispanic Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez call for open borders and a federal work guarantee for all, it plays into these fears both within the Hispanic community and of course far beyond.

Clearly, mistrust of the Democrats’ political use of immigration policies is widespread. Even some registered Democrats held their noses and voted for Trump in November, possibly for the second time, because of the negative follower effect created by the immigration policy views of “the squad” and Democrats who think like them. That’s one way a Republican candidate like Trump gets more than seventy-four million votes.

Policing Abuses

The upheavals in the wake of George Floyd’s videotaped murder by a Minneapolis policeman have been a mixed bag. On the one hand, the widespread outrage that resulted was the best thing to happen to the country in years. It showed that most Americans retain a vibrant moral pulse. Every American generation needs to discover for itself the unfinished business of eliminating the bigotry and injustice arrayed against African-Americans. Most of the protests were peaceful, and a great many, perhaps most, were racially integrated. The vast majority of those who participated were testifying to the validity of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, colorblind society ideal, that every individual, every person should be judged, and treated, according to the content of his or her character and not the color of his or her skin. That is what the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) means to most people.

Unfortunately and paradoxically, the Black Lives Matter politburo, along with its neo-Marxist allies in Antifa, does not sees things that way—nor do critical theory “woke” warriors on campus who have bought into the zero-sum mentality of understanding social life as based solely on eternal and irremediable conflict. In this perspective, law is not an institution flowing from a secular liberal order in which procedural norms facilitate the non-violent adjudication of conflicting interests. A courtroom is never a neutral space. Law is a bludgeon used by the strong to oppress and exploit the weak, a phenomenon seen less in individual and more in group terms. There is no organic, voluntary social order below and necessary to good government. Social order is based instead on a continuous act of implicit coercion: It’s all about the accumulation and protection of wealth and prestige. It thus sees the police power behind the law as instrumental leverage. If the “white” culture is invariably racist, then it follows that the police must be, too.

The ideological blinders that this point of view imposes make it impossible to grasp what the real problem is with abusive police behavior, and how to fix it. We fix it by paying for better training, getting rid of limited immunity, reducing the power of the public service unions that abet the “blue wall” of denial, and insist on community policing. Those are just the basics; plenty can be done if competent leaders can break free of political cant and intimidation.

Worse, how does thinking in terms of eternally conflicting racial groups help us to make progress on these challenges? In Dr. King’s colorblind ideal there is hope; in the zero-sum “solo racisme” perspective, the only answer in the end is some kind of separation—and how, after more than three centuries of building America together and interpenetrating subcultures in every imaginable way, could that work out well? Defining the problem in the neo-Marxian tense, so to speak, only makes an already neuralgic situation worse.

That a racist element inheres in the police-abuse problem cannot be denied, but to claim that’s all there is to it is absurd. The militarization of the police is in part an overwash from the post-9/11 “war on terror,” as Radley Balko shows in detail in The Rise of the Warrior Cop (2014). That it has a subcultural aspect not about race comes clear from Richard Thompson Ford’s brilliant essay, “Criminal Injustice.” That the nature of policing in predominantly Black neighborhoods owes much to demands from Black communities themselves going back to the late 1960s is laid out in James Forman, Jr.’s 2017 book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

Moreover, it’s rarely mentioned that a non-trivial number of police in urban areas have become cops not because they really want to be cops, but because the union-based manufacturing economies of many American cities have turned to rust. Cops who become cops for lack of better options, who have never felt the pull of public service or any vocation to serve justice, are not ideal employees for the sensitive, dangerous, and difficult work of policing. There’s a limit to how well one can train people who aren’t really suited or motivated for the job in the first place, and that goes for many Black cops as well as white ones.

The calls to defund or abolish the police that came in the wake of this past summer’s protests didn’t go over well in most majority-Black neighborhoods, but our clickbait-motivated media was slow to pick up on that story. Trump got more Black male votes in 2020 than in 2016 (about 18 percent, all told). Why? Because of negative follower effects. Bastions of the Black community, including many business owners victimized by violence, held their nose and voted for Trump because they feared, and at times despised, the ideological naifs who claimed to know Blacks’ interests better than Blacks themselves do. As Russell Kirk observed, “There is no surer way to make a man your enemy than to tell him you are going to remake him in your image for his own good.” Condescension comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and it always generates a negative follower effect of one kind or another.

The key to the negative follower effect in the November balloting was not so much the violence that occasioned some of the protests, but the way that the vast middle of the electorate perceived the reactions to it by high-profile Democrats. First of all, the media delighted in showing the scenes of mayhem from Minneapolis to Seattle to Portland and beyond, where certain Democratic elected officials seemed to retreat before the rage, while others applauded, abetted, and even joined in it. The chaotic scenes were great for ratings, and that seems to be all that professional journalistic responsibility means in practice these days.

But just as important was Nancy Pelosi’s flippant comment about a statue of Christopher Columbus being beheaded and thrown into Baltimore harbor: “People will do what they do.” Her refusal to condemn the act—in the city where she grew up and in which her father served as Mayor—despite being offered several polite opportunities to do so, was deeply unappreciated in Baltimore and beyond.

Most damaging of all, Joe Biden made almost no mention of the violence at the virtual Democratic National Convention in August. Only several days later, realizing his mistake, did he make a clear, unequivocal statement condemning violence and lawlessness; by then, however, the damage had been done to the Democratic brand.

Simple, primitive, skin-color racism does not lie at the base of this crucible. There is some of that, no doubt. But because race—as we still unscientifically use the term, since there is only one human genome and hence one human race—is so mixed up with class and culture, ambivalence about race far outweighs outright racial hatred. The structural impediments to African-American equality of opportunity and dignity are complicated, history-laden developments. That doesn’t mean, however, that American culture is foundationally racist; if it were, then how to explain an electorate that vaulted a Black man into the presidency not once, but twice? The foundational racist cant, today more widespread and influential than ever, is liable to generate a negative follower effect. It just did, and it still is.

Case in point: the “poster” prepared by the staff of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History that depicted hard work and rational thinking as manifestations of “whiteness” and “white culture.” It struck me that my former bosses Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice might be puzzled, even a bit put out, to learn that hard work and rational thinking are “white” traits. That outrage was quickly withdrawn and an apology meekly offered, but that incident generated its own negative follower effects. Nor is the very bad idea behind the poster dead: As Matthew Yglesias noted in the Washington Post, Oregon teacher-training materials now claim that asking math students to “show their work” reinforces white supremacy.

Clearly, most people have enough sense to see that if some sort of Platonic ideal of “whiteness” exists, then “Blackness,” too, must be admissible as a cultural descriptor. And that, of course, is exactly the point implicit in the attitudes and assumptions embedded in the poster. But Léopold Senghor’s “négritude” notions notwithstanding, this is madness born of lazy, ideological thinking and ignorance.

“Black” is not a culture but a mere color; the actual cultural diversity of peoples on this planet who might fall under that rubric is stunning. Same goes for “white,” of course. Even within the United States, what intrinsic cultural “Blackness” makes Alicia Garza, John McWhorter, and Shelby Steele think similarly about politics? What Black “culture” unites Jesse Jackson (a descendent of slaves), Barack Obama (Kenyan father, white mother), and Kamala Harris (Jamaican father, Tamil mother)? A soft spot for Martha and the Vandellas oldies? Hey, I love those songs, too. One has to wonder if any of those who created that Smithsonian poster even know what a Tamil is, or have ever met one. Alas, the insularity and self-absorption so characteristic of native-born Americans applies to all skin tones.

Kamala Harris

Just as Joe Biden is no conveyor belt for the “woke” wing of the Democratic Party, Vice President Kamala Harris is not a wild-eyed leftist in the mold of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), despite the 2020 Republican propaganda machine’s best efforts to make her seem that way. That said, Americans from smaller towns and rural areas, who had likely never heard of a Tamil, were not wildly irrational to be concerned about any woman of color being a septuagenarian’s heartbeat away from the Oval Office. It’s not fair that this is the case, nor is it right in some abstract moral sense, but it’s true all the same. She perhaps came across a bit too assertive in the Vice Presidential debate; men can posture that way and get away with it unscathed but women, particularly women of color, just can’t. Not yet anyway. But anyone can look dark and dangerous next to bloodless Mike Pence. Alas, ambivalence votes as well as hatred; hatred doesn’t need a negative follower effect to make up its mind, but ambivalence may.

Thus, Kamala Harris’s position on the Democratic ticket, combined with both immigration and the police abuse protests, gave us a hat trick of negative follower effect energies. Given Trump’s shocking behavior in office and mismanagement of the most serious public health emergency in a century, the Democrats should have routed the Republicans, but they didn’t.

Never mind how most of the polls again managed to be so wrong. Suffice it to say that the pollsters underestimated the negative follower effect, set in the context of the ambient anxiety created by the protracted onslaught of the coronavirus. So many of the more than seventy-four million Americans who voted for Trump likely had to swallow so hard while doing that it’s a wonder some of them didn’t choke to death on the spot.

Lesser of Two Evils

The negative follower effect almost surely has a future in American politics—possibly a definitive one. More Americans claim to be independents now than ever before, and third-party energies are up—for whatever they turn out to be worth—thanks to general disgust with both major parties. But the logic of the Electoral College mandates a two-party arrangement because, except in peculiar circumstances described in the Twelfth Amendment, it takes 50 percent-plus-one to elect a President. That means we will be stuck with an either/or structure that abets polarization and makes it hard to press the plague-on-both-your-houses attitude all the way to the voting booth. In the end, most voters will resign themselves to choosing the lesser of the two evils.

The real question of the near future of American politics thus becomes: Which major party will produce the largest negative follower effect? Will more Americans fear the right-wing, anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment lurch of the Republicans, or the left-wing, anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment lurch of the woke Democrats?

At the moment, the GOP establishment is notably failing to keep its own extremists away from the party’s controls; not so—not yet anyway—on the Democratic side. A lot depends, therefore, on how successful the Biden Administration will be. The more successful and popular, the more likely its center will hold off its further Left. Biden is and will continue to “give” to the Left to propitiate and manage it. So far, despite Republican exaggerations, it’s working tolerably well.

But the future is long laid out before us, and no bets are off the table. What can be said with reasonable certainty is that, until either the Democrats, or the Republicans, or a yet unknown third force comes up with a new story of America’s future that appeals to a majority, we’ll be stuck in a dynamic in which one major party or the other will win because it generated a less powerful negative follower effect than the other major party. It’s not a pretty picture, but no one promised us a White House Rose Garden tended by a genuine hero.

Looking Back

So what does any of this have to do with John Mueller’s War, Presidents, and Public Opinion from forty-eight years ago? One reason Mueller wrote the book, published two years before the fall of Saigon, was because he knew from data already at hand that the vortex of issues surrounding the Vietnam War didn’t decide the 1968 election. Given the deepening grooves of educated opinion at the time, this struck him as interesting and counterintuitive.

Establishment liberal opinion held that Nixon had won a close race against Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because the latter was too slow to disavow LBJ’s war policy. Many believed Robert Kennedy would have won both the nomination and the election had he not been assassinated, but many of these same people simultaneously believed, somehow, that Nixon’s nonexistent “secret plan” to end the war was more believable and appealing to the electorate than anything Humphrey said after President Johnson threw in the towel in his televised speech on March 31, 1968. (This latter belief made some sense at least, because at the time most Americans believed that the best way out of Vietnam was to escalate and win the war, and Nixon’s reputation as a hard-nosed anti-communist played to that opinion.)

The truth emerging from the data Mueller examined, however, showed that Nixon won because of a negative follower effect that had far more to do with the urban race riots of 1967 and 1968—especially those that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination—and the sharply negative image of the radicalized antiwar movement. Many Americans were uneasy over the war, but most loathed the irreverence, drugs, obscenity, flagrant sexuality, and anti-patriotic banter of the antiwar movement. Waving Vietcong banners and shouting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF Is Gonna Win” did not endear the movement to the American electorate. The “Battle of Chicago” outside the Democratic National Convention in late August 1968, televised for all to see, remains a vivid case in point. Antiwar radicals chalked it up as a great victory, guerrilla theater at its finest. But at least a few Students for a Democratic Society leaders admitted years later that the protestors were the most hated group in America.

Nor did the rapid evolution of African-American political organizing from Dr. King’s NAACP, with which most Americans sympathized, to Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and thence to the Black Panthers fail to generate a negative follower effect.

These two negative follower goads, particularly as they seemed to many to fuse into one movement during 1968, far overshadowed anxiety over the Vietnam War itself and Washington’s war policies. The “silent majority” loathed the former and feared the latter. Richard Nixon used these negative follower energies to win the White House, and then he used them again to buy sympathy and time for his war policies to work.

But this is not how most Sixties-era protestors saw it then or remember it now. As a consequence, it is not how most Americans think of it today. Sixties-era baby-boomer cohorts believe overwhelmingly that their heroic protests against the war eventually converted “the people” to their cause and brought about the war’s end. This is not true.

Antiwar protests may have affected the private views of President Johnson’s “wise men” as they struggled with the ineffectiveness of U.S. coercive diplomacy, but the idea that the antiwar movement turned national public opinion decisively against the war is not remotely accurate. Had that been the case, history books today would record how George McGovern won forty-nine states in the 1972 election, instead of losing forty-nine states. There would be no mention in the books of “hardhats” and “Democrats for Nixon.”

Doesn’t matter: The aftermyths of the Vietnam antiwar movement will never be expunged from the hearts of the generation shaped by their supposedly heroic acts. It has become increasingly difficult on politically correct campuses even to raise other possibilities. When Omar Wasow, child of two Sixties-era antiwar radicals, tried to do that from the cockpit of Princeton’s political science department, he was subject to withering and highly personal criticism.

The truth is that the antiwar movement’s negative follower effect enabled first the Johnson Administration and then the Nixon Administration to handle public discontent with their policies. The result was to buy them time that, in the end, got more people killed in Southeast Asia—Americans and others—than would otherwise have been the case. To the extent that the antiwar movement at its zenith was maximally radical and off-putting to most Americans, it was counterproductive by its own lights and measures. It did not stop the war; it lengthened it because, had Hubert Humphrey become President in January 1969, it certainly would not have taken him five years to end U.S. combat participation in the war.

And Looking Ahead

Now, let’s fast-forward to early summer 2020, when assorted chatterati were discussing whether a negative follower effect from the “George Floyd” upheavals might help Trump get re-elected. Could he mimic Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” racist dog-whistling and ride it to victory? Most of the chatterati thought not because, they reasoned, Nixon in 1968 was the challenger, and the electorate’s natural inclination is to blame the incumbent when things go wrong. So Trump, as the incumbent, would get blamed and lose.

As it turned out, this prediction proved barely right at the bottom line, but largely wrong as analysis. Yes, Trump lost, so the negative follower effect against the Democrats did not save him. But it nearly did, and that in turn has contributed to Trump’s retaining a dominant position within the Republican Party going forward.

Who knows how the memory of 2020 will slither into the future? It depends in part on how we deal with the challenges before us. If we return to a path of healing and unity among our gloriously diverse people, the history books half a century from now will likely say that the coronavirus was the main issue in the November election, and that Trump’s mishandling of it doomed him. Of course, that won’t be wrong, but, as these kinds of sweeping simplifications far removed from the events always are, it will be an oversimplified and partial truth.

Very likely too, those who joined the Black Lives Matter protests of the spring and summer of 2020, without much clue about what the BLM core leadership actually believes, will in due course develop narratives about how they were the ones who defeated Trump by mobilizing anti-Trump voters in places like Fulton County, Georgia. That could be true, at least in part, and as a matter of empirical social science we have to hope someone is carefully looking into that, difficult as such a study would be to control.

However noble the intent behind them, the BLM protests, because they were associated in the public mind with violence, didn’t help the Democrats in November any more than the radicals protesting the Vietnam War helped to end it. Again, protestors of recent vintage might argue that they mobilized more voters to come out for Biden than they did for Trump via the negative follower effect. There is no doubt, however, that the Democrats were doing far better before the George Floyd protests than after. Had it never happened, the Democrats most likely would have trounced the Republicans. Few of the protestors will ever understand that, or even ask the relevant questions. The residue of emotional heroism has little patience for objective after-action analysis.

Most people believe whatever they want or need to believe about history. Temperamental cynics, idealists, and others thus fabricate contradictory images of the past according to their needs looking to the future. Consider: Everyone has heard and professes to believe that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” yet whenever the utopian temptation raises its glassy-eyed head, that is the first bit of cautionary wisdom to get flushed down the memory hole, clearing the path for the negative follower effect to do its ironic deeds. The parade of history’s fools never ends, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Quirks are forever.

Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, the founding editor of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

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