A binary problem

About a year or so before Trump’s rise, I had a conversation with a collegemate about the lamentable state of conservatism today, especially in the US. There is much merit in being skeptical of attempts to constantly reform institutions and practices, especially those that have stood the test of time. He suggested some early conservative readings, and I remember being struck by how sensible they sounded; more so in comparison to the mindless drivel that floats around today. When I saw this drivel supported by half of the voters in the most advanced democracy on the planet, I knew something was wrong. An entire industry sustains itself on identifying where the fault lies, but my two cents are free, so I’ve had my own theories as well.

Gran Torino is an interesting movie in its own right, but I was fascinated by a subtle subtext to the story. At the outset, it seems like the movie is about an old racist who goes from distrusting immigrants to (spoiler alert) sacrificing his life for them. But I posit that he didn’t change his values at all. From the beginning to the end, what he values are tradition and civility. He sees that the Hmong immigrants adhere to these while his own children have discarded them, becoming scheming materialists. He simply changes his people to suit his values. What if many people that vote for Trump are some variant of this? It could be that they are uncomfortable with a sudden change in societal structures that seem to have worked alright so far, rather than hateful of immigrants. Indeed, this possibility is widely recognized (and I guess hotly refuted by those on the left), but what is it that enables this to lead to a Trump win? I suspect that it is the binary party system, which itself is sustained by US democracy’s peculiarities. In a multi-party system, for example the ones in India and the UK, the parties are less polarized across a single dimension, and the complexity of multiple options accommodates the existence of greater subtlety.

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