One Nation, Divisible by What Scares Us Most

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Virginia Postrel describes Americans as one nation, divisible by what scares us most:

Red America worries about deliberate human action. Blue America dreads unintended, usually inanimate, threats. Red America focuses mostly on the body politic. Blue America emphasizes the body. In the pre-Trump era, that meant conservatives talked about crime, foreign enemies, and moral decay while liberals emphasized environmental poisons, illness, unwanted pregnancies, and material deprivation. As we’ll see, Donald Trump added a twist of his own (and jettisoned the old conservative moral concerns). But the basic people-vs.-things division remains.

Consider two recent New York Times headlines. One frets that “Trump’s F.D.A. Pick Could Undo Decades of Drug Safeguards,” appealing to liberal fears of bad medicines. A second declares that “Trump’s Travel Ban, Aimed at Terrorists, Has Blocked Doctors.” Where the administration sees a human threat, the Times finds a benefit that addresses biological vulnerability.

Or take Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous comparison of Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles in which a few of the candies are poisoned. A colorful variation on the standard probability example of pulling balls from urns, the analogy’s real flaw was that it wildly exaggerated the likelihood of jihadi supporters among Syrian refugees. But to many outraged liberals, what made it offensive, rather than merely wrong, was that it equated people with candy. “They aren’t Skittles. They’re children,” was a typical tweet. In their cultural milieu, unhealthy food is legitimately scary, the source of endless anxiety. Foreigners aren’t. Conservatives, on the other hand, worry less about toxins and more about people.

As the dueling Times headlines demonstrate, both sides suffer from the same essential blind spot: They see — and often exaggerate — the threats they fear, while overlooking the dangers of the policies designed to stamp out those threats. A crackdown on immigrants means small towns won’t have doctors. Excessive drug regulation keeps beneficial medicines away from patients who need them. (Indeed, as we come to understand more about genetic variation, regulatory requirements could make the most effective treatments prohibitively expensive.) Both policies could, in the name of protecting the public, actually shorten lives.

Team Red looks to law enforcement and the military for protection, Team Blue to scientists and technocrats. Each despises criticism of its protectors, whether from Black Lives Matter or regulatory skeptics. Each equates the end with the means. Intensive policing and punitive sentencing may fight crime, but they also sweep up minor offenders, sow fear of law enforcement, and shatter communities. Challenge the trade-off and you’ll have few friends on the right. Higher energy prices may fight climate change but they also stifle economic growth and hammer Rust Belt residents. Question the toll and liberals will dismiss you as anti-science.

These debates aren’t really about calculations of risks and rewards. They’re about what’s salient to whom—what scares people most. That’s why both sides so often find themselves swapping anecdotes rather than statistics. Steve Jobs’s biological father was Syrian! Refugees in Germany keep attacking people! Each hopes to make the other — or the undecided middle — feel what it feels.


  1. Ross says:

    “They aren’t Skittles. They’re children.”

    These are the same asshats that mock evangelists who take the Bible literally, right?

    A foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of liberal memes.

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    Virginia Postrel, prime example of Libertarian anti-thought. The phrase of hers, “it wildly exaggerated the likelihood of jihadi supporters among Syrian refugees,” is pure idiocy. Keeping them out absolutely prevents these unvetted invaders from inflicting any carnage.

  3. Graham says:

    I’m assuming she just meant the idea of a few bad skittles in a typical sized bowl wildly exaggerates the likely prevalence of jihadis in any number of refugees the US might have taken.

    For the metaphor to work, you’d need a few bad skittles in a bowl of about a million regular ones.

    Given one had no need to eat skittles at all, it’s still perfectly reasonable policy not to eat any if you know there might be a few bad ones.

  4. Mikeski says:

    “For the metaphor to work, you’d need a few bad skittles in a bowl of about a million regular ones.”


    Census numbers put the state’s Somali population at about 40,000, but community activists have said it’s higher.”

    “A total of 10 Somalis from Minnesota have been charged with conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS. [...] Another dozen or so [...] have traveled to Syria to join Sunni rebel groups [...] Another 22 [...] have left to join al-Shabab [...] [in] Somalia.”

    So 44 (or 45, including the St. Cloud mall stabbing spree guy from the first link) out of about 40,000 total.

    More than 1 in 900…that we know about; we probably haven’t found them all. (And those two news articles may not list all the ones we have found.)

    That is by no means only “a few” in “a million”. I’m happy that the majority want to go back home to do their killing, but still…

  5. David Foster says:

    An interesting perspective, I think there’s truth in her main postulate.

    But estimating the danger of future terrorism using a static probability based on current experience is simplistic. You could have concluded based on statistics in 1915 that your likelihood of dying of influenza was pretty small; by 1918 you would have been very wrong. If an airliner tends to develop wing spar cracks after about 2000 landings, and few such cracks had appeared after the plane had been in service for a couple year, a conclusion that the wing spar was nothing to worry about would have been dangerously fallacious.

  6. Mikeski says:

    So, you’re predicting an end to jihadism and Islamic fundamentalism in the next two or three years, then? Based on… what, exactly? They aren’t a flu virus; they aren’t going to suddenly mutate into something else. Is there a nascent reform movement across dozens of Islamic countries that I am unaware of?

    I don’t like going to the Mall of America and passing a bunch of cops with bomb-sniffing dogs, which is the current daily state of affairs there.

    I certainly don’t want to have to deal with machine-gun armed soldiers at the Smithsonian (see: recent machete attack at the Louvre), or eight-foot-high walls around the Washington Monument (see: current construction plans for the Eiffel Tower), and all the other “fun” that France and other parts of Europe are dealing with currently…

  7. Wan Wei Lin says:

    Another division to use: Those who wish to be left alone to enjoy their lives and those who want to interfere in everyone lives.

  8. Graham says:

    Mikeski, I don’t think we’re in any disagreement here. Note my position really amounts to: “the US doesn’t have to take any refugees if it doesn’t want to, so why take the chance?” A zero-refugee policy based on the slightest chance of one terrorist would be acceptable to me.

    But I admit my original scale assumption was influenced by using the outflow of Syrian refugees as a whole as the most current baseline — that’s a large number of people. If I were to take a smaller subset or alter the ethnic balance, or both, I could also assume higher relative numbers of potential terrorists. Chechens, to take only the most obvious.

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