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  • Ken Ilgunas

The Big Forces Theory

A little more than a week ago, Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos, called a political opponent “Pocahontas” at a ceremony honoring Native Americans, and reveled in Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct allegations (even though Trump has his own allegations to deal with). For any other president, a series of gaffes and embarrassments like this would have been catastrophic. But for Trump it was just another week.

These stories make me angry. They make me hate the voters who put such a monster in power. I want to slap them, shake them by the shoulders, berate them. Look at what you did! Look at who you put into office! In Trump’s immaturity, I see theirs. In Trump’s stupidity, I see theirs. In Trump’s moral depravity, I see theirs.

But these fits only last a few moments. The part of me who enjoys being angry is weaker than the part of me who wishes to understand. My hatred eventually dissolves and turns into curiosity, making me wonder: Why did they vote for him? What made 62 million Americans vote for a man who is so clearly unfit for office?

There are plenty of reasons that have been cited: fear of immigrants, contempt for environmental regulation, anxiety over the economy, hatred for the political establishment, the desire to “blow the whole thing up,” racism…

I’m going to focus on racism, but first I’d like to establish a theory that’s essential for this post.

The Big Forces Theory

I’m proposing that Trump voters — all people, really — have only so much control over what they think and believe. Until I learn that this theory has already been developed and named, I’m calling it the “Big Forces Theory.” It proposes that our ideologies — and essentially everything about who we are — are shaped by tremendous forces that are often invisible to us.

Let’s talk about the forces that contribute to our economic success. Our culture celebrates nonconformity, independent thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Our culture would like us to believe that we are the creators of our own lives and makers of our own destinies. By pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we, as individuals, are principally responsible for our successes.

Studies show that this isn’t the case. We fail to appreciate how our place in the world — our health, our socioeconomic status, our life expectancy — has far more to do with when we were born, who our parents are, and whether we were fortunate enough to have been swept to prosperous shores by the grand tides of history.

The work of Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his team at the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that we are only partly in control of our fates. Our likelihood of achieving economic success is influenced by factors such as residential segregation, income inequality, social capital, school quality, the year we are born, and whether we have one parent or two, among other factors. Someone born in San Jose, California, for instance, has a much better chance at climbing the economic ladder than a person born in Atlanta, Georgia. Gregory Clark in The Son Also Rises has shown that our income mobility is partly determined by our surname and how our families fared hundreds of years ago.

I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Ulysses S. Grant. We love Grant’s story because it’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story: from drunken firewood peddler to savior of the Union. When Grant had a young family, the economy was a mess and he became something close to destitute. After struggling to sell firewood, he had to swallow his pride and ask his younger brother for work. This is what we remember about his story. We tend to forget that Grant had an advantageous start. Grant’s father was rich (so much that he’d be a millionaire today) and had good connections—connections that he used to get a teenage Grant enrolled at West Point. Grant’s privileged education would come in handy during all those future military battles.

We think of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as self-made men, and of course they, like Grant, had incredible vision, drive, and god-given talents. But they greatly benefited from stable home lives, early access to computers, great schools, and an environment that had a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Finding a true rags-to-riches story (in which the social climber has not benefited from wealth, connections, good families, or good schools) is difficult. Even Andrew Carnegie, who we remember as one of America’s great self-made men, had an uncle who was a politician. In his youth, Carnegie befriended a colonel who opened up an impressive library to Carnegie, giving the boy advantages that other boys didn’t have.

There are probably a few true rags-to-riches stories and there are indeed people with rare, god-given talents, but I think we can agree that, generally, those who have wealth, good parents, good schools, and good health tend to succeed far more than those who don’t.

Let’s zoom out and look at how some societies succeed. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, reports that Europe came to dominate the world, not because of brilliant, revolutionary leaders, but because of something far simpler: geography. The Fertile Crescent and greater Mediterranean area were blessed with good climate, a disproportionate number of animals capable of being domesticated, and 32 of the world’s 56 most useful grasses. Europe’s geographic connection to these resources, not to mention all the diseases that they grew immune to (and that they would pass on to Native Americans), would put inhabitants of the New World in a serious position of weakness for the coming clash. In Earning the Rockies, Robert D. Kaplan, says that American geography — with our helpful network of rivers across arable land (perfect for transport and commerce) and two protective oceans — has made our global foreign policy, as policeman and world leader, practically inevitable. “What all of this amounts to,” writes Kaplan, “is something stark: America is fated to lead. That is the judgment of geography.”

These are examples of Big Forces. The big things — such as climate, geography, wealth, good institutions — largely determine the fate of people and civilizations. I’d like to extend the reach of Big Forces: I propose that Big Forces are almost entirely responsible for how you and I think. They determine who becomes a progressive, a conservative, an environmentalist, a libertarian, a Christian, a racist, and so on…*

In the above meme, which appears to be well-vetted, we see many problems that plague the southern states, all of which voted for Trump except Virginia. In the South, there is disproportionate poverty. There is inferior education and poor health. And up close and personal is the legacy of slavery. (An updated meme also contains maps that show that the southern states have the highest levels of teen pregnancy and venereal disease, which I believe are accurate as well.) Together, Big Forces like these create large-scale cultural patterns and broad political trends.

Consider those maps as we go through post-election voting data analyses.

Health. Findings from The Economist suggest that poor physical health was one of the most reliable predictors of a Trump voter.

Educational level. According to FiveThirtyEight, Hilary Clinton (in relation to Obama’s 2012 election) lost voters in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in America. Nate Silver says education levels were “the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016.”

Racism and xenophobia. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that racism and xenophobia were leading factors in Trump’s victory, more so than economic anxiety. An analysis done by The Nation also suggests that it had more to do with racial animus than economic anxiety. Analysis done by the Washington Post concludes that, “Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism.” Using data from the Southern Law Poverty Center, I’ve calculated that the states with the most hate groups per capita went solidly for Trump, including the top eight most hateful states and 16 of the top 20.

Here we see Big Forces at work. Poor health, poor education, racism, and xenophobia — things, I’m arguing, that we have little control over — are all correlated with voting for Trump.

And how about propaganda as another Big Force? Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains describes the decades-long attempt to radicalize the right, dupe millions of voters, and undermine democracy. This effort has been funded by billionaire true-believers, like the Kochs. Elaborate strategy and billions of dollars make their way into millions of minds through AM radio, Fox News, and many dark, but well-supported, corners of the Internet.

We could look at racist Trump supporters as angry nincompoops, or as the products (victims?) of not only wide-scale regional educational, religious, health, racial, and economic patterns, but also a conspiracy that is powerful and compelling enough to overpower the enlightened sides of their minds.

Maybe these voters, who consistently vote against their self-interest, aren’t deserving of our scorn. Maybe they’re deserving of our understanding. Instead of hating them, we must consider the tremendously powerful — and invisible — forces that have made them this way. They did not invent their own stupidity. They are not inherently racist. They do not control the Big Forces around them. They did not parent themselves. They did not under-staff the schools they attended. They are the products of an almost inescapable culture. They are inevitabilities. They are algorithms, as we all are. Their Big Forces made them into Trump voters, the same way our Big Forces made us into who we are.

Of course there are examples of people who’ve rejected their dominant culture. Take for example Derek Black, who grew up in a prominent white supremacist family and who is the godchild of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Derek, as a teenager, was an active white supremacist, but he would later renounce his family’s views soon after he went to college. Was this change due to the workings of moral logic in one young man’s independent mind, or might it have something to do with the fact that he attended a liberal arts college, far from his parents, and that a few Jewish students would kindly invite him to Shabbat dinners and show him up-to-date research that disproved Derek’s racial theories? Is Derek responsible for the change of ideology, or was it simply an opposing Big Force (the liberal arts and fact-based thinking)?

This all makes me wonder: How much is racism a choice and how much is racism imposed on us? How much of our minds are products of Big Forces, and how much of our minds are products of our own creation?

Perhaps genetics play a role in determining who we become and what we believe. We’re all born with different bodies and brains. It follows that these differences may somehow affect how religious, liberal, or scrupulous we become. The term “genopolitics” describes how our genes may contribute to our politics. But this is not a theory I’m eager to endorse, as this skeptical New Republic article does a pretty effective job shooting it down. Perhaps you could talk me into believing that if you become sufficiently enlightened — which includes recognizing the Big Forces that shaped you — you might to some extent be freed from the grip of Big Forces. But this is leading me into philosophical thickets that I can’t get through on my own.

Enlightenment and genetics aside (which I don’t even get to choose), I feel it’s more likely that I am merely a ball of clay that my environment shapes. If I’d grown up in Wheeler County, Texas — where Trump got 90.5 percent of votes — I think it’s quite likely that, if I’d grown up with normal Wheeler County values and experienced the Big Forces typical to Wheeler County voters, I would have voted for Trump as well.**

For the most part, I believe that we are malleable creatures, that we are products of our environments and Big Forces. Personally, I’m comfortable thinking that my thoughts and beliefs are not my own. I am merely a smoothie of all the things I’ve read, watched, listened to, learned from, and experienced. Sure, a little bit of genetic endowment, a little bit of spirited individuality might come into play, but for the most part I am an algorithm. While I actively watched, read, learned, and listened to a number of things that developed me, it was cultural and institutional forces (like the entertainment industry and the New York State school system) that presented me with a relatively narrow set of options that I could choose to be influenced by.***

I realize that I’m saying nothing original. We all recognize that our environments shape us to varying degrees, but I think we recognize this only on a higher intellectual level. We seldom apply these thoughts to face-to-face interaction. In the heat of the moment, it’s all visceral. Same thing with when I get frustrated with Trump and his supporters. But I think it’s worth writing about the Big Forces in the way I have because I think we tend to give too much credit to the concept of individual self-determination. We tend to think that racism needs to be solved on a person-to-person micro level, when I think it needs to be addressed on a much grander macro level. Also, as smart as we are, I think we need to be reminded of the forces around us that are so ever-present that they become invisible.

When I think about Big Forces, I think of racist Trump voters less as baskets of deplorables and more as products of Big Forces. If you have the same tendency to feel anger and hate, I urge you to think of us all as Big Force products, which are impossible to hate. (Admittedly, the irrational part of me will most definitely get momentarily angry with these voters the next time Trump does something terrible).

I’m not trying to give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling about “respecting” the other side. I’m not trying to make racism or xenophobia in any way okay or forgivable. I may not even be trying to help you shed your anger, as anger and passion can be converted into useful activism. I’m merely suggesting that by acknowledging the existence of Big Forces, we may be more able to deal with unruly emotions, and we may think more on a Big Force level to help prevent future electoral calamities.

Under my value system (which calls for equality, justice, and fraternity for all of humanity, as well as care for the planet and all earthly species), I can think of a few helpful Big Forces that might produce a future citizenry that could accomplish some wonderful things.

1. Enhanced democracy. An enhanced democracy that promotes vigorous civic participation would severely reduce the number of voters who feel disenfranchised, alienated, and forgotten. These citizens, once they feel like citizens, will be less inclined to vent their frustration in elections by trying to “blow the whole thing up.” In his book Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot explains how the revival of tight-knit communities could resurrect a dying civic spirit, which could make everyone feel valued and give everyone a voice. On a more national level, referendums would make us feel like we play meaningful roles in deciding big things. Switzerland offers about ten referendums a year, which is a big factor in why 75 percent of Swiss citizens (the highest percentage among the forty countries studied) expressed “confidence in government.” On another (and rather obvious) note, getting money out of politics would be key.

2. Enhanced public trust. People feel like strangers in their own land. We are racist and xenophobic. We have extremely low levels of trust for our media and government. There is a severe deficit in social capital. We don’t interact with members of our communities as much. We bowl alone, or we bowl at home on our Xbox. Studies have shown that income equality is a common feature among countries that have high levels of public trust. In other words, when society isn’t too stratified by outrageous differences in wealth, people tend to trust each other and their governments more. Society could benefit considerably from a different tax structure. On a related note, in my coming book This Land Is Our Land, I write about how the “right to roam” — and a more shared understanding of private property — could help us create a nation that’s more equal, neighborly, trusting, and united.

3. Enhanced education. In Against Democracy, Jason Brennan describes just how uninformed that average American voter is. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Brennan lists a few findings from his research:

Voters don’t know which party controls Congress, who their representatives are, what new laws were passed, what the unemployment rate is or what’s happening to the economy. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, while slightly more than half of voters knew that Al Gore was more liberal than George W. Bush, they did not seem to know what the word “liberal” means.

We need to be smarter, more savvy, more skeptical, more critical, more self-aware, more informed. We need strong public schools that make kids enthusiastic about learning. We need to make higher education dirt cheap. I just passed through Poland, and there, I’m told, the concept of being a “nerd” doesn’t really exist. It’s this way in many places across Europe. In other words, being smart is not the same as being uncool. I think we need to adopt this way of thinking. Americans universally value kindness, confidence, an independent spirit, a go-get-um attitude. These are great, but I think “worldliness” — achieved by travel, study, and self-reflection — should be added to the core values that we encourage each American to cultivate.

These are just a few pie-in-the-sky dreams. You might call them implausible, but I’m okay thinking of these as long-range goals. And I’m finding inspiration from modern-day Western democracies, so these dreams aren’t all that far-fetched. Plus, this is a blog and there’s nothing stopping me from enjoying my role as armchair reformer. So there.

These things won’t end racism (maybe nothing will?), but they might create a set of conditions where something like racism can be contained in its quieter Jekyll shell rather than being unleashed every few election cycles as a dangerous Hyde.


*Of course I’m not suggesting something as simple as tabula rasa, that we’re clean slates from birth to be entirely shaped by our environments. I understand that we’re born with many things innate that direct us to, for instance, survive, be social, be cooperative, to laugh, to individuate. We

**That said, I do wish to believe that there is in us all some “true you” that could never be touched by our culture, our environment, and our Big Forces. Sometimes I imagine myself in scenarios where I have the same genes, but where I’ve grown up in an entirely different place, with different guardians, with different circumstances. It begs you to ask the question: Just how malleable are you? Despite identifying as a peaceful person, if I’d grown up in a warrior tribal society, I can imagine myself enjoying war. Despite identifying as an atheist, if I’d grown up as a Western European peasant in the Middle Ages, I likely would have believed in the Christian god. If I’d been beaten and traumatized and unloved as a child, I could see myself as some broken human, capable of committing atrocities. If I’d grown up with a prized tutor in aristocratic England (and didn’t spend my boyhood playing Tecmo Super Bowl) perhaps today I’d be a much smarter and more accomplished person, though perhaps I’d be a more maladjusted person, too. But what characteristics would transcend all of your alternate reality selves? I know we all want to say “honorable” and “brave” and “principled,” but we’re probably so malleable that even our most cherished personal characteristics would be lost in certain circumstances. I’ve thought about this and to me my clearest answer is (apart from a set of obvious physical characteristics) my introversion. I think no matter what society I came from, I’d be introverted.

***Here are my Big Forces… I grew up in a Western New York suburb, where I had good public schools, good public parks, and parents who benefited from fair wages and unions. At a young age, I had a TV of my own and parents who didn’t restrict me from watching whatever shows and movies I wished to watch. I never felt threatened by immigration (my dad’s a Scot and I was born in Canada, so I’m sort of an immigrant myself), I’ve had very few unpleasant encounters with members of another race, and certainly nothing serious enough to make me judge a whole group in one way. I went to a good public university where I was exposed to a world of thought and where I intermingled with many cultural groups. The things that have hurt me or hurt others around me include fundamentalist religion, student debt, unchecked consumerism, Big Sugar, fossil fuels, private health insurance, and pollution. In short, these influences have made me into a progressive environmentalist who believes in institutions, who isn’t afraid of diversity, who doesn’t have any weird gun complexes, and who can imagine living contentedly in several sorts of pre-industrial societies, but who, given the realities of the present world, would like it if America shifted toward a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy.


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