A Note on the Perils of Caricature

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Here’s a snippet from “Bernie Sanders in Trump Country,” airing tonight on the Chris Hayes show:

Bernie may not believe that, but an awful lot of people probably do. This is, obviously, one of the big problems with American politics right now: both sides over-respond to extreme caricatures of the other side. So at the risk of insulting you all with a really simplistic diagram, here’s the real world:

In every country, probably since the beginning of time, populations have lived on a continuum like this. Some people enjoy cultural change and look forward to it. Some are apprehensive of cultural change and resist it. At one extreme end you have stone racists and xenophobes, and at the other you have the Occupy Wall Street crowd.

But they’re actually a pretty small part of the population. Standard issue Republicans and Democrats are closer to the middle, and it’s just human nature that there’s a limit to how much change they can accept. If you push past that limit you’re going to run into political blowback.

I’d add that I suspect some of us are less open to change than we think. For example, I’d probably put myself at about an 8 on this scale intellectually. But emotionally I’m more like a 5 or 6. I’m a creature of habit, and not especially thrilled about exploring new and different places, but I’m not especially afraid of cultural change either.

In any case, my fairly obvious point here is twofold. First, both sides should try to respond to the standard issue folks on the other side, rather than pretending that they’re all represented by the loudest, most extreme voices. It’s easy to mount arguments against the extremists, but those arguments never actually persuade anyone. Second, we liberals should keep pushing for more tolerance of cultural change, but we should also recognize that lots of perfectly nice, perfectly ordinary people get nervous about it a lot faster than we do. That doesn’t make them bad people, it just means they’re a few notches away from us on the bell curve.

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