Towards a Reinvigoration of Our Pluralistic System

Vulnerable groups become easy targets for anti-pluralistic populist leaders.

Posted Oct 10, 2017

Throughout the public debate about the presidency of Donald Trump, a central question for all of us to consider is how can we reinvigorate our pluralistic political system, including civil and open debate. 

Many Republicans continue to support the President for understandable political reasons: the advocacy and promotion of conservative causes. However, there are Republicans who, despite serious reservations, cannot publicly speak against the President because of the ongoing electoral power of the President’s base. 

How can we understand the resilience of the President with his voter base? This group includes white working-class voters who voted for Donald Trump, especially the voters of the Rust Belt States. Their electoral college votes insured his election. A major motive for the shift in votes from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 has been attributed to the economic downturn. Yet, it remains to be seen why and how did the Great Recession lead to this dramatic shift in the electorate.

Economic hardship, which many groups suffer, cannot be the sole cause for this dramatic political shift. For the white working class communities, the loss of economic security and its contrast with the post-war economic boom, intensified a variety of social and emotional problems. The combination of economic and emotional hardships contributes to a loss of self-esteem and self-empowerment, leading to painful emotions which are difficult to master. People may then turn to violence, opiate and other addictions, and alcoholism in order to deny or blunt these unbearable emotions. Unfortunately, people in such desperate straits often blame others for their problems, developing prejudicial and xenophobic attitudes. These coping devices of denial and projection prevent vulnerable communities to effectively address their complex problems; their vulnerable state continues.

Vulnerable groups then become easy targets for political leaders with populist messages. Populist leaders, who are anti-pluralistic, repeatedly proclaim that they alone represent the people. They appeal to vulnerable groups by promoting simple solutions to complex problems and reinforcing the mechanisms of denial and projection. Elites and immigrants are made into scapegoats, complex thinking is avoided, and xenophobia is pervasive. Within such a framework, populist leaders promise a return to a golden age, that may never have existed, and certainly never will. This illusion of restoration of an idealized past prevents vulnerable communities from recognizing how to effectively address their complex social, emotional, and economic problems. In group situations, such as at political rallies, populist leaders promote the group's fears, encourage a reactive aggression towards others, and reinforce prejudicial feelings. An increasingly destructive cycle of anxiety and aggression follows because a populist leader does not provide reassurance nor promote cooperation among all members of society.

The challenge facing our nation is how to counteract the anti-pluralistic message of a populist leader, which is so attractive to vulnerable groups. How can we promote the value of a pluralistic system with checks and balances? Economic revitalization is not enough. Programs need to be developed which address the socio-emotional needs of vulnerable communities. Such programs need to recognize the centrality of addressing the pervasive use of the maladaptive coping mechanisms of denial and projection. These mechanisms, which are so ubiquitous, impede the development of realistic solutions to complex social problems.