Donald Trump was right. We’re all huge losers.
At least, we Americans have begun to see ourselves that way. Whether young or old, male or female, white or black, highly educated or unschooled, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, we tend to believe we’re losers, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center.
The survey asked Americans: “On issues that matter to you in politics today, would you say your side has been winning or losing more?”
Bizarrely, despite what you’ve heard about our everyone-gets-a-trophy-just-for-showing-up culture, only a quarter of respondents said they were winning. More than twice as many (64 percent) said they were losing.
Even demographic groups usually considered society’s winners saw themselves as political losers. For example, more than 60 percent of whites, upper-income Americans and men said they were losing in the political arena.
Not a single major demographic group saw itself as mostly victorious. You have to cut the data more finely to find factions more likely to see themselves as winning (such as highly educated Democrats ).
So what’s going on? Not every side can be simultaneously losing, right?
Perhaps different groups see themselves as losing on different fronts. Democrats may see themselves as gaining ground in the culture wars (legalization of gay marriage), yet still believe they are losing on the economic front (stagnation of the federal minimum wage). And vice versa for Republicans.
Still, it’s hard to believe that nearly every major segment of the population has independently forgotten all of its gains.
I suspect that instead we’ve all become convinced of our victimhood, of our very thorough trouncing by our enemies near and far, because that’s what political leaders and pundits keep telling us.
Trump, of course, is the master of such rhetoric, often using explicit references to “winners” and “losers.” Losers comprise not just anyone who’s criticized him or severed business ties with him, though there are plenty of those. There’s also America writ large, today no longer “great,” and constantly being ground down by the P.C. police, foreign economic powers and greedy, murderous immigrants.
“We’re getting beaten at every front,” Trump told Iowans last month. “We’re losing everywhere!”
No wonder Republicans were among the groups with the highest share of respondents in Pew’s poll — 79 percent — saying that they were “losing” on important issues. Trump is feeding his audience’s deepest fears about their relative frailty and stoking new ones as well.
But it’s not only Trump who plays to Americans’ desires to feel like underdogs.
In the outrage factories that are social media, cable news and the rest of the campaign trail, Americans hear again and again that we are put upon by China and Mexico, even though we enjoy higher standards of living than citizens of either country.
We’re also losing out to the “illegals” stealing our jobs and our benefits — even though undocumented workers are usually taking jobs that Americans don’t want, and they don’t qualify for public benefit programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.
We’re also being taken advantage of by whichever income class is not paying its fair share in taxes; the shirkers in question are sometimes the rich and sometimes the poor, depending on who’s in the audience.
And, of course, we’re also being pushed aside by racial classes receiving preferential treatment. Though again, which racial groups are unfairly privileged depends on your perspective; half of whites say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while blacks and other minorities tend to disagree.
There are two main reasons why such loserly narratives have proliferated: Audiences want to hear them, and leaders want to deliver them.
Being told we’re losing out can be oddly reassuring, especially if we’re told it’s an unfair fight. Being a victim to some nefarious other “side” grants moral righteousness, perhaps even moral impunity. It also absolves us of responsibility for our own inadequacies.
More important, such messaging can also elevate the status of the messenger, who by convincing the public of its own weakness can position himself or herself as a potential savior, as the only one who can successfully lead the charge against those evil, undeserving victors and bullies on the other side.
Tell everyone to buck up, that their country is already great, that their economy is already improving, that their political mission is already succeeding, and you’ve ceded the premise you need to argue that you and you alone can turn things around.
To the leader of the losers go the spoils of election season.
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