“They’re Different from Us.” It’s a favorite mind game of the self-serving 1% when they want to stifle broad opposition to their agenda. By manipulating our understanding of what’s happening, what’s right, and what’s possible, this psychological appeal takes advantage of prejudice to promote distrust and division within and across communities.
Today’s greed-driven plutocrats know that solidarity with the disadvantaged and mistreated is jeopardized whenever differences like race, gender, and religion are emphasized and exaggerated. That’s why they highlight these differences while downplaying similarities in the concerns and aspirations we all share. If this ploy works, it divides groups that might otherwise form a more united and more potent resistance. When such coalitions fail to materialize, the winners are the defenders of extreme inequality who’ve long ago forsaken the common good.
What makes these they’re-different-from-us appeals psychologically effective is that we tend to view ingroup members more favorably than outgroup members. When we’re persuaded that someone belongs to the same group we do, we usually perceive them as more trustworthy, we hold them in higher regard, and we’re more willing to share scarce resources with them. In part, this positive bias reflects our belief that these individuals have a lot in common with us. Even if we’ve never met them, we imagine that their values, attitudes, and life experiences are probably similar to our own. However, if we see people as members of a different group instead, then we don’t care as much about their welfare and there’s a greater chance that we’ll view them as potential adversaries rather than allies. Such divisiveness is exactly what the 1% want.
The ambitions of one-percenters don’t require that they all hold explicitly racist or prejudiced attitudes about Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, or other groups—although some, like President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, obviously do. But even those who don’t can still take advantage of the fact that bigotry in the United States continues to divide individuals and groups whose collective futures could be brighter if unwarranted suspicions gave way to mutual respect and support. Law professor Ian Haney López has described this approach as strategic racism: “purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing.” Journalist Naomi Klein has similarly noted, “White supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia have been the elite’s most potent defenses against genuine democracy.”
Today it’s clear that the leadership of the Republican Party and many titans of corporate America are comfortable supporting—or at least acquiescing to—a litany of racist and discriminatory White House policies. Their reward includes billionaire tax cuts, windfall profits, deregulation of their industries, and other favors reserved for them alone. For some this is perhaps a devil’s bargain; for others, it’s undoubtedly considered a win-win situation. Consider three examples in turn.
GOP leaders and party loyalists have largely accepted Trump’s promised termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), his pardon of the infamous Arizona “tent city” Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the ruthless dragnets of immigrant communities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and the immoral and traumatizing separation of young migrant children from their parents arrested at the border. Actions like these find cover in anti-immigrant sentiment among the U.S. public. Meanwhile, the draconian policies are a boon for private security contractors and even more so for for-profit prison corporations, their executives, and wealthy investors who eagerly add to their net worth from the expanded use of these detention facilities.
The same dynamics are readily apparent in the unequal treatment of Black Americans in our criminal justice system. In particular, they are far more likely to be the targets of stop-and-frisk operations, are arrested and prosecuted for minor offenses at higher rates, and are given longer, prison sentences for comparable crimes. At the same time, research shows that white Americans become stronger supporters of mass incarceration when they believe that Black Americans are the ones who are being disproportionately affected. Again, such racial biases among the public help protect the revenue streams of a variety of companies that provide services to prisoners—telecom, food, healthcare—as well as those that benefit from below-minimum-wage inmate labor.
In a similar way, defense and homeland security contractors are among the businesses that land enormous paydays because many Americans hold distrustful, prejudiced, and they’re-different-from-us views of Muslims and Muslim Americans. Indeed, some see all members of the faith as potential terrorists. That’s made it politically palatable or even advantageous for Trump and other party leaders to call for the tracking of Muslims and a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. Fox News personalities simultaneously feed both our country’s Islamophobia and the television network’s bottom-line by insisting that all terrorists are Muslims and that sharia law may someday replace the Constitution across the United States.
In all of these instances, the conclusion is simple. When the 1% encourage prejudice and discrimination—or when they merely fail to use their enormous influence to challenge racism and bigotry—they’re prioritizing the preservation of their tremendous material advantages over the creation of a more equal and more decent society. Making matters even worse, their efforts to cultivate distrust and disunity often succeed in spurring disadvantaged groups—of all backgrounds—to start blaming each other, rather than directing their sights at a key source of their shared travails: the plutocrats themselves.
If we want to focus on the kind of differences that truly matter, we should turn our attention to the striking divergences between the documented policy preferences of the 1% compared to the rest of us. In a nutshell, Americans in general are much stronger supporters of a higher minimum wage, labor unions to strengthen workers’ rights, affordable healthcare for everyone, a more progressive tax structure, higher taxes for high-income earners and corporations, government initiatives to decrease unemployment, and a stronger social welfare safety net for those facing adversity. These are all worthy and achievable goals. The first step is to recognize and reject the manipulative “They’re Different from Us” mind game that’s designed to divide us.