E354 -

Emily Ekins returns to the show to discuss how people interpret the labels of capitalism and socialism.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Emily Ekins is a research fellow and director of polling at the Cato Institute. Her research focuses on public opinion, American politics, political psychology, and social movements. She leads the Cato Institute project on public opinion in which she designs and conducts national public opinion surveys and experiments

Emily Ekins comes back on the show to talk about her latest polling work that included many questions about an individuals’ locus of control. The discussion ultimately comes down to how can we improve the happiness and meaning in our own lives and those around us.

Do you have a favorable view of capitalism or socialism? Are there different types of envy? How does personal responsibility play a role in how you view politics?

Further Reading:

Since Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential election many have been looking for an explanation for his rise. But, there is no such thing as one type of Trump voter who voted for him for one single reason.



00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is our colleague in Emily Ekins, a Research Fellow and director of polling at the Cato Institute. And interestingly, or perhaps not, we were Cato interns together in the summer of 2010. Also her past Free Thoughts episode, ‘Who Elected Donald Trump?’ is our most popular episode ever by a pretty substantial margin. I don’t know if you knew that, Emily, but yeah, it’s… It’s really popular.

00:31 Emily Ekins: That’s great.

00:32 Trevor Burrus: So welcome back to the show.

00:34 Emily Ekins: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

00:35 Trevor Burrus: So before we get to results from your polling, which we’ll talk about a few things today, I’d like to start with a broader question about your approach to polling, what is your approach and what makes it a little different than what a lot of people in organizations do?

00:51 Emily Ekins: Well, there’s different ways that people go about polling, some polls come from news organizations like the Wall Street Journal or ABC News or the Washington Post, and those polls are intended to really speak to the times, what is salient in the news right now and what would make for an interesting headline. Other types of polls are more academic in nature, and they try to dig deep to try to get at what are those underlying assumptions and values and beliefs that people have. That motivate them or may motivate them to vote a certain way, or to support a various policy. And that’s usually been done by researchers like at the Pew Research Center, or academics that study Political Science, Economics, Social Sciences of some kind.

01:37 Emily Ekins: And so we actually kind of merge the two approaches in the research that we do at Cato, where we are interested in what’s salient, but we wanna dig deeper and get to those underlying values and assumptions that people have. But there’s one other thing that we also do that surprises me that other pollsters don’t do more of, to be honest. We ask about trade‐​offs, and that’s something that you just don’t see a lot of in polling, a lot of times people will ask, Do you favor or oppose this policy? And don’t give any indication to what the opportunity costs or the actual cost would be, and so that’s something that we try to implement in our polling. And I’m happy to talk about some of that today.

02:25 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I’m a very big fan of that fact because it’s been a frustrating aspect for me of polling that you have, say in gun control, you have the constantly… They roll out this thing, let’s say 84% of people support common sense gun restrictions or something like that. And it’s just… It’s useless. If you ask that question, it’s loaded, if you ask the question, “Do you support common sense gun restrictions?” It’s so loaded that it’s worthless, but it’s also about asking, well, what would be the cost of those gun restrictions if they put them in play and then the results look different often.

03:00 Emily Ekins: That’s true, and also the way you word the question matters, and that’s something that is difficult, it’s hard to design them properly, and it’s something that we’re always working on as pollsters to do as accurately and properly as possible. Like an example would be in healthcare, I’ve noticed that a lot of questions will ask if they favor or oppose repealing protections for people… Who wants to repeal a protection? Right? Let’s be honest that it’s a regulation that it is intended to protect a certain type of issue, but there are trade‐​offs, so let’s be honest about that, and by even using the word protections or talking about collective bargaining rights, things like that also contribute. And so that’s something that we are really conscientious of at Cato when we do polling that we are trying to make these questions as balanced, and as fair as possible, and we release all of our results. We don’t hide anything that might be inconsistent with our own views, because the goal is to get out what do people really think to understand where they’re coming from.

04:07 Aaron Powell: How do you go about designing questions, particularly when you’re looking at trying to get a sense of people’s underlying values? I’m thinking of definitional questions seemed really hard, so we’ll talk later, but one of your findings was about the way that Americans, the favorable or unfavorable views they have towards capitalism and socialism, say. And how those have changed in the last several years, but if you ask someone, “What… Do you have a favorable view of capitalism?” Say… My conception of what capitalism means might be very different from what theirs means and similar with socialism, one side might interpret socialism as straight up state ownership in the means of production. Another side might interpret it as, well, we should just have a larger welfare state.

05:00 Aaron Powell: And so they could both have the same underlying economic views, but come to different conclusions because they’re using the term differently. How do you tease out or design questions that can tease out those kinds of differences without ending up having to write term paper‐​length questions that like define every term ahead of time exhaustively?

05:20 Emily Ekins: Right, so a common practice in Political Science and in psychology is to ask people a series of questions that are totally unrelated to a specific policy or political issue, and then examine how people answer those questions and then see how they correlate with questions they did answer about public policy or politics or who they’re gonna vote for. So this is a very common practice that you do, and we’ve done a lot of that in our own research, so to give you an example of how you can do that, we were really interested in looking at to what extent compassion to help people contributes… Contributes to support for socialism versus envy. That’s kind of the oldest criticism in the book, right? There’s that famous Winston Churchill quote, “That socialism is the gospel of envy.”

06:18 Emily Ekins: And so what we did in our survey is that we… We went into psychology and we looked for a battery of questions that psychologists use to measure compassion. And so it has no mention about politics at all. So for instance, you would ask people a series of questions where you would ask them if they agree or disagree with a number of statements, for instance, “I suffer from others sorrows,” or, “I feel sympathy for those who are worse off than myself,” and you would agree or disagree with these statements on say a scale of one to five or one to seven. And then what you do is you average all these responses together and you kinda get a sense of how compassionate a person feels like they are. So we did that on a recent survey that we did, the Cato Welfare, the Cato 2019 Welfare, Work and Wealth survey.

07:13 Emily Ekins: And then we also asked another set of questions to get the competing hypothesis, so one hypothesis is, is that support for Socialism and hostility to capitalism is about compassion and the love that people have for others. Right? That’s kind of like the social welfare state ideal. But then we also measured a different set of questions to get at… To get at the envy side of, the envy hypothesis. So this was… We asked a series of questions that were also developed in psychology by professors that they’re not thinking about politics necessarily, they’re thinking about this from kind of a psychological perspective, so to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements. For instance, here’s one.

07:58 Emily Ekins: “Very successful people need to be brought down a peg or two even if they’ve done nothing wrong,” or “Do you agree or disagree that, ‘People who always do a lot better than others need to learn what it’s like to fail?’ ” So this is just like, as you can see we’re not… There’s no mention of a political candidate. There’s no mention of a specific policy like taxes or spending, these are just kinda getting at the dispositions, the personality and the psychological dispositions people have. What we do is we ask a series of questions like this, and then we kind of average all their responses together and get a sense of how resentful and envious they are.

08:45 Emily Ekins: And then we take the two together, compassion and envy, which of these better predicts people’s attitudes towards socialism and capitalism, and what we found is that both significantly predict or seem to drive support for socialism. Now, correlation is not causation, but that’s what we’re saying, predicts that the support people have for socialism. But it’s envy that really best predicts hostility people have towards capitalism. And let me tell you about why I think this matters. So you’ve got different political candidates, and think about the language they use and the issues they choose to emphasize, so some might talk about how they care about people with pre‐​existing conditions, vulnerable or marginalized people, and they wanna help them, make sure they have access to healthcare and education.

09:41 Emily Ekins: Okay. Now there’s others that talk a lot about billionaires and millionaires and how they’re to blame for so many of societies problems, the rhetoric between those two are very different, and what we found is that psychological dispositions really predict what kind of person cares about those two issues, they’re not necessarily the same. So more compassionate people are the ones that care about the first set of issues, people with pre‐​existing conditions, getting access to healthcare, but people that scored a little bit higher on envy and resentment were more concerned about wealth taxes and the creation of billionaires and things like that.

10:26 Trevor Burrus: Fascinating, not totally surprising, but it’s kind of interesting when some of the questions you posed, is there a social desirability bias problem where you mean if you ask someone, “Do you care about people who are in pain or suffering?” I can’t imagine anyone saying no to that.

10:46 Emily Ekins: Well, yes, there definitely is a social desirability problem in terms of how people answer the questions, but what is interesting is that even despite that, we get really significant differences between groups and how they answer the question. So let’s take that first one I gave you. It’s, “Very successful people sometimes need to be brought down a peg or two, even if they’ve done nothing wrong.” Like a third of strong liberals agree with that statement compared to about one in 10 conservatives, so there’s… They’re three times as likely on this particular question.

11:22 Emily Ekins: Yes, so my point is, is that you still get distributions between liberals and conservatives… Let me give you one on end on compassion, between the two. So in this case, liberals score much higher on compassion on average than conservatives. I gotta get the data right in front of me or I’ll just have to go off the top of my head. But basically liberals were three to four times as likely to give more compassionate answers than conservatives. And so it’s not that both sides are compassionate, it’s just the extent to which people might answer a seven very strongly agree versus answering a six, which is agree.

12:02 Trevor Burrus: Now we’ve seen… One of the results you have is that we’ve seen that there is a shift going on post‐​Trump about… Away from capitalism towards socialism. Is that accurate?

12:15 Emily Ekins: That’s true. Among people in the political left, so democrats have been trending since Trump was elected in favor of socialism and against capitalism, so as of 2019, 64% of democrats had a favorable view of socialism, but only 45% had a positive view of capitalism so that’s 64 for socialism, it’s 45% for capitalism. But just four years ago, it was about 50:50 between the two. And so we also ask… ‘Cause this was kind of a theory that I had, that Trump has played a role in souring his political opponents attitudes on capitalism, and we did find some evidence of that, 50% of democrats say that Trump has made them like capitalism less because I think he represents to them, a lot of the negative aspects and excesses that they perceive to be endemic to capitalism, and here he is embodying all of that and is their political opponent.

13:18 Aaron Powell: How much of this is branding? So if Trump calls himself a capitalist and the dislike for Trump runs very high, and people who dislike him dislike him a lot, and so don’t want to… Basically, anything that Trump likes, they’re not going to like, that… I could imagine it being the case that their underlying economic views, like what kind of economic system they find favorable or not, doesn’t change all that much, but it’s just… If Trump is going to be saying, I’m a capitalist, then I don’t want to say anything that’s gonna make me look like I’m on his side, and so I’m going to naturally develop a dis‐​favorable view to that term.

14:02 Aaron Powell: Or if I see that the kind of people who are sharing the values that I have in terms of non‐​economic things are claiming a label of socialist as well, I’m going to develop more warm and fuzzies to the term, again, even if my underlying economic views haven’t changed much, is there a way to know what’s going on there, if it is actual shifts in views on economics or shifts on kind of feelings towards a brand?

14:32 Emily Ekins: Now that’s a really good question. And sometimes it’s hard to tell. I think that you are right, that a lot of it is kind of branding and how people have come to associate the words and the labels, like we all know, probably by now that the word socialism just doesn’t mean the same thing for young people that it did among people during the Cold War. Right. So older people remember that socialism is associated with the Soviet Union, and there are all sorts of problems that they don’t want replicated here, and so they don’t like that word. But younger people associated with Scandinavia and Sweden, even though they repeatedly try to emphasize they are not socialists at all. They just have larger welfare states.

15:18 Emily Ekins: And so really that the conversation should be about the extent to which socialistic central planning, even if it is in the case of a welfare, social welfare programs, to what extent that actually serves the public or not. But I think that even if underlying values may haven’t or underlying preferences about the economic system have not changed dramatically, I do think that it offers… It helps generate support among rank and file primary voters to elect representatives to Congress and their state legislatures that actually might have substantively different views about the economic system, if that makes sense.

16:05 Emily Ekins: So even if the underlying kind of views about the economic system haven’t changed for the average Democratic primary voter or the average Republican primary voter, they can still elect people who actually would move where the average Democrat that sits in Congress, what they actually think about the economic system.

16:28 Trevor Burrus: Another thing that you focused on in the welfare work, poverty survey is young people’s attitudes. And in particular, we see… Well, one of the striking ones was, I think the actual number was a third of young people believe violence against rich people may be justified, which is I guess maybe not terribly surprising, given I don’t know what’s happening currently with a lot of unrest and the courts have a more favorable view towards socialism. But you also have an interesting theory about one other source of this, which is called locus of control theory for what maybe one reason why young people have somewhat divergent attitudes about this. What does the locus of control literature say?

17:13 Emily Ekins: Well, sure. So just for a moment, let’s just… Let’s just back up if we can just to talk about the puzzle here. So the puzzle is younger Americans hold much more negative attitudes towards the rich than older Americans do. And so to put some numbers on that, to just put that into perspective. So for instance, a majority of people under 30 agree that we shouldn’t let people get too rich in this country because rich people have too much political power and threaten democracy, so that was like a statement that you could agree with or disagree with. A majority of young people agree with that, compared to only a third of people over 65.

17:53 Emily Ekins: Similarly, almost half of young people agree that they feel angry when they read or hear about very rich people, compared to only 11% of people over 65, so question after question that we asked about attitudes towards the rich, young people were 20, 25, even 30 points more likely than older people to express resentment and anger, so not just frustration, but anger with rich people. Now, some of this has to… There’s a lot of contributors to this, right? People don’t like that people that have more money seem to exert more influence in society, that seems unfair to many people, and they want that to stop.

18:40 Emily Ekins: Now, we would have a conversation about, well, if you limit the power and scope of government, there’s less for them to hijack in the first place. That’s a whole another conversation we can have. But what I wanna get at is why the words ‘anger’ and ‘resentment’ came out a lot in this survey, and what’s going on there. And so there’s this really interesting literature on envy and resentment. And psychologists that have tried to get to the bottom of, what drives some people to feel more envy than other people? Okay. So let’s talk about envy for a moment. What is envy? It’s interesting, in the English language, we really don’t have all the words that we need to explain envy.

19:27 Emily Ekins: There really are two types, and in other languages, there actually are two different words to describe the two different types of envy. So one you might describe as benign envy. That’s when you compare yourself to someone else that is doing better than you in some way, and you say to yourself, “Oh wow, they’re doing better than me. I want to strive to be better, to be better too.” Okay. The other kind of envy is called malicious envy, and this is when you observe a peer or someone else doing better than you in some way. Maybe they got a better grade or they made more money or got a promotion, or even if you’re doing a similar type of job, they seem to do something well at work.

20:13 Emily Ekins: The malicious form of envy wants to bring the other person down rather than lift yourself up. Okay. And so, it’s fascinating that other languages actually have two different words to describe these things. And so, what I was really interested in is the role of malicious envy. What’s going on there? And why do some people feel more malicious envy than others? Why do some people wanna tear each other down? And so, that brings us to the locus of control literature. There’s some evidence that some of that feeling of malicious envy is driven by people’s lack of feeling personal agency, and that’s really what the locus of control is about. It’s a construct identified in psychology, totally separate from politics. That’s really key to remember here. This is developed by psychologists, not related to voting or politics.

21:08 Emily Ekins: And what they found is that if you looked even at children, children seem to have different ways of explaining the events in their lives. For instance, imagine you have a kid and they got a bad grade on a test. They’re in high school. And you say, “Why did you get the bad grade?” One set of answers they could give would be, “Oh well, the teacher didn’t teach very well. The class was noisy. You didn’t provide me a proper study space at home.” All these things that are external to the individual’s choices. Okay?

21:43 Emily Ekins: Alternatively, imagine another kid that got a bad grade on a test, and you say, “Hey, why did you get the bad grade on the test?” And they say, “Well, honestly, I didn’t pay attention very well in class.” [chuckle] Or, “I stayed out too late the night before with friends.” Or, “I actually didn’t do the reading that was assigned.” Okay, so the latter are all things that are within the control of the individual. It’s something that they have a little bit more control over than these external forces.

22:11 Emily Ekins: And what psychologists have found is that people who emphasize what is within their personal control, that’s called the internal locus of control versus external locus of control. People that have an internal locus of control have all of these more positive outcomes. So they found that measuring this in children, the kids that tended to emphasize the things that were within their control tended to get better grades, they made more money in the jobs that they got when they got older, they reported higher life satisfaction and greater happiness in the jobs that they had, they were willing to change jobs if they were unhappy in their current situation. It correlates with less likely to bully other kids and get involved in fights among high school boys.

23:03 Emily Ekins: And lots of healthcare studies use this, so it also correlates with more positive healthcare outcomes. So, there definitely seems to be something here about the internal locus of control and a belief that you are in the driver’s seat of your life. Now, that does not mean in any way that external forces don’t shape you. The question is, to what extent do you emphasize one or the other? And so, what it seems like is that those who are emphasizing… People who feel a lot of malicious envy, they tend to have more an external locus of control. They feel like these external forces are shaping their lives. And what we found is that younger people are far more likely to feel an external locus of control than older people.

23:50 Emily Ekins: And this is something documented by a social scientist named Jean Twenge, where she’s been going over generations of young cohorts since the ‘70s. So, this is not the same people over time. This is, “Who were the young people at any given snapshot in time since the ‘70s?” And she’s been finding that more and more young people have an external locus of control than previous generations. And so, that seems to be contributing a lot to what we’re seeing today, these negative attitudes towards wealth. And I think, explains a lot of other political phenomenon that we’re witnessing as well.

24:32 Aaron Powell: That’s fascinating, and I have some immediate questions related to this. So, I’ll try to just put out a couple and see. The first is, so if youth cohorts over time are showing an increase in external locus of control, do they still show a decrease in that belief as they age? ‘Cause if you just asked me, “Do young people or older people feel like they’re more in control of their own agency?” It would make sense for older people to feel they’re in control than younger people because younger people are subject to their parents, they’re subject to their teachers, they don’t have jobs yet, they’re not independent and so on, so they have less control over their lives. That makes perfect sense. But if…

25:21 Aaron Powell: And I could also imagine, if it’s increasing over time, that that could be potentially driven by the growing length of adolescents in American culture, that young people are dependent upon their parents and so on for a longer period of time, and so an older… A young person looks like a young person instead of an old person in terms of how their life is going to a later age than they used to. Just because of cultural shifts. And then the other minor question is, when we’re talking about resentment or this malicious envy towards wealthy people, do we distinguish kinds of wealthy people? Because it seems like young people…

26:09 Aaron Powell: Dwayne Johnson makes a ton of money, and Taylor Swift makes a ton of money, but I don’t tend to see younger people like maliciously resentful of their money. They’re resentful of certain kinds of businesses or certain kinds of people who they might view as like have… This is ill‐​gotten, gains or corrupt or so on. So do we have more granular data on that?

26:33 Emily Ekins: Yeah, these are great questions. My immediate… Let me think about the most… The last question you asked. We actually did a survey where we asked people how much money they thought corporate CEO should make, and then also NBA basketball players, and NFL football players, and we actually found that very strong majorities people thought that NBA and NFL football players made way too much money as well, so it wasn’t just CEOs, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to the… Who’s the poster child for the greedy Vulture Capitalist. It’s not Taylor Swift that people put up there, right? They’re thinking about a faceless CEO for some faceless corporation that goes kind of unidentified. Right?

27:23 Emily Ekins: There’s definitely something to that. Where they can see the value that Taylor Swift produces for them, where as they don’t know exactly how the CEO of a major company provides value to them, and they also don’t… Maybe they don’t realize how that CEO is hard to replace, that their jobs are actually hard. I think a lot of people recognize that Taylor Swift has a very unique talent to write and sing music, and that most of us realize we could not do that. But maybe it’s not clear that… People realize that the CEO of Black & Decker actually has a pretty hard job. And not just anyone could do it well, and that’s why CEOs get pushed out all the time.

28:07 Emily Ekins: To your first question about cohort effects versus life phase effects. I think you’re absolutely right that… Yeah, younger people are subject to parents and teachers, they don’t have jobs yet, they don’t have control of much of their lives. And that if you increase the number of years in which kids are living at home, or increasing that phase of adolescence, that that would increase the percentage of people who have that more external locus of control. I think that that absolutely could be playing a role.

28:40 Emily Ekins: Honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of research that has tried to explain the ‘why,’ why it’s increasing. I think that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, in their book “The Coddling of The American Mind,” does kind of touch on this, in that they documented a change or a shift in parenting styles to more hovering, where kids are taught that they need a third party authority to mediate conflict between young people, and so they advocate for more free‐​range parenting, let your kids work out their conflicts amongst themselves without having the teacher come in and solve it for them. So there might be something to that. But I actually think about my own experience, I actually had kind of a flashback to when I was graduating from college, and I’m a little embarrassed to say how I felt.

29:38 Emily Ekins: I remember sitting there in the auditorium during graduation and each of the speakers that were not students was always like, Princeton alumnus is gonna speak about this person went to Yale, this person went to Harvard, and then they started this company, and they were all these just famous people that had gone to Ivy League schools, and they were all there to give us advice for the future, and I remember being a little bit annoyed. And resentful at the time. And I’m embarrassed to say this actually. But I think the reason why is I felt like I had no control over that. I felt like how could I… I felt like I was implicitly being asked to be successful like them. And I thought, well, how am I supposed to do that?

30:23 Emily Ekins: And so I think to your point, Aaron, that’s what a lot of young people feel. But I think what a lot of people discover is that once they get out there and start making a lot of their own choices, that they find a little bit greater sense of agency, and I think that as people get older, they do feel that internal locus of control does seem to increase.

30:47 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting ’cause this confirms some classic distinctions between conservatives and liberals, people on the left that, the personal responsibility distinction as being a huge component of this. And in my own thinking for a while, I’ve kind of thought that this sort of subplot of the last 200 years of political thought has kind of been, how much of people’s, your conditions or given people’s conditions of poverty or different status, criminal, whole [31:20] ____ status, how much of it is their fault versus how much of it is due to external factors? Like is crime caused by bad people choosing to commit crime, or is it caused by economic circumstances? And that has undermined a bunch of our debates over politics for 200 years, I would say, if not longer.

31:41 Trevor Burrus: You also talk about… Interesting. Like the meaning in your life. That’s one poll part. The conservatives find more meaning in their lives than liberals, which doesn’t shock me, I guess, given kind of grievance‐​centered… Some people who are very grievance‐​centered. Do you have any interpretation on how that kind of fits into the rubric you’ve explained?

32:04 Emily Ekins: Right. Yes, so we actually asked some of these questions about the locus of control on our survey, and again, keep in mind that these are not questions that ask about politics or who you voted for, or what you think about taxes or immigration… These are totally separate. So for instance, this question, excuse me, it’s a statement you can agree or disagree. So here’s the statement: “My life is determined by my own actions.” Fifty‐​two percent of strong conservatives strongly agree with that statement, compared to a third of very liberal people.

32:45 Emily Ekins: And almost… Actually, each of the questions that we asked, conservatives are more likely to take the internal locus of control position versus liberals, and that seems to correlate really strongly with finding meaning and purpose in people’s lives. And you’re right, Trevor, it’s such a hard thing, because I think a lot of liberals look at this and they say, “Well, there are people suffering all over the world for things that they had no control over. You don’t always determine your life. There are all sorts of external forces that shape the decisions in which you make your own choices.”

33:26 Emily Ekins: And so I feel like both sides are right in their own way, right? External forces obviously, absolutely shape all of us, and they can kind of put us on a path in one direction or another. But I think a lot of people also believe that free will and agency also matter. And some might be interested in engaging in the exercise of, “Well, which one matters more for public policy? Do we need to know which one matters more in each given situation?”

34:01 Emily Ekins: Well, I don’t know. But I do think that there is an argument to be made for emphasizing why regardless of what the facts are, that if we as individuals choose to focus on the trying to have an internal locus of control and focus on personal agency ourselves, we might be happier as individuals. That’s kind of separate from the public policy conversation about how we wanna reform structure so that people can thrive better, right? And so in the survey, we asked people about if they felt like they had purpose and meaning in their life. And then what we did is we looked through, okay, who are the people who agreed with this, strongly agree that their life has purpose and meaning and what’s their profile? And so we found some really interesting correlations. I’m gonna share those with you now.

34:54 Emily Ekins: So who finds most meaning and purpose in their life? So people who had a strong belief in personal agency were 40 points more likely than those who had a low belief, people who believe in external locus of control. So people of an internal locus of control are way more likely to feel like their life has meaning and purpose. People who emphasize personal responsibility, so these are questions about “Should you reap what you sow?” those kinds of questions. People who scored high on compassion, I’ve already read you some of those questions, people who scored low on envy, and I read you some of those questions as well.

35:34 Emily Ekins: And so it kind of creates this profile. Okay, so who is the person, psychologically, in America that has the most meaning and purpose in their life, which is separate than like happiness, right? That can be like, you ate some chocolate chip cookies, that was fun. But what provides that deep lasting meaning in your life? And it seems like people who take on and believe in taking on as much responsibility as they can, people who focus on the things that they can control versus the things that they can’t, people who try to be compassionate and avoid feeling resentment and envy towards others is kind of perhaps a recipe for finding that meaning and purpose in your life.

36:20 Aaron Powell: How does Trumpism fit into this? And I’m thinking particularly of the kind of Trumpism that seems to be motivated by White grievance politics, which was what he ran on and what it looks like his campaign this time around is going to largely focus on. Because you talk about the… What we find is that young people have this external locus of control and older people have or young… Yeah, young people have the external, older people have the internal, that conservatives seem to have potentially more meaning in their lives or are more disposed to think that we have personal responsibility for our lives, and have less resentment.

37:05 Aaron Powell: But all of those things seem to describe a lot of White grievance politics, that White grievance politics is blaming manipulators and other people, it’s picking enemies, it’s saying that your position in life is because of all these external forces. And even the National Conservative Movement has been making the case that there’s been… One of the things that drives White grievance politics is a hollowing out specifically of meaning, because we’ve abandoned, say, religious institutions or don’t have the same jobs that existed before or whatever. And so as you were describing the characteristics of the youth and the far left, a lot of times it felt like you were describing the White grievance politics motivated Trump voters.

37:53 Emily Ekins: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And I think if you listen closely to a lot of the rhetoric that Donald Trump uses, especially at the beginning, especially back in 2015 when he first launched his campaign and was setting the groundwork for what is he all about and what do people, people who wanted to vote for him, what drew them to him. He has a rhetoric of externalizing, where the source of the problem lies outside of the individual. Immigrants coming into the country, competition with China, globalization and trade, all of these things are external to the individual. And I think that that’s why Trump attracted a different kind of Republican, not even Republican, voter, early on, and we have data on this. So Republican politics has been characterized by a number of different social movements that have galvanized different segments of the political right. So there was the religious right.

38:58 Emily Ekins: There was the Tea Party movement, and then comes along, Trump. And so a lot of people probably assume they’re all the same. Well, I wrote my dissertation on the Tea Party and have spent a lot of time studying these segments, so I just think coalitional politics are so interesting. And they exist on the left and the right. What’s interesting about Trump is that he attracted a different kind of conservative person, and a lot of them actually identify as moderates, they were independent moderates that weren’t really paying attention to politics, and he activated them. Whereas the Christian conservatives and the Tea Partiers actually gravitated to other candidates early on, Trump or sorry not Trump, Cruz and Rubio were the Tea Party favorites, and then religious conservatives had some overlap there, too.

39:47 Emily Ekins: And so his message really gravitated with a new set of voters at the beginning, and then he kind of brought them all under his wing, ’cause partisanship does that, but I think that you’re absolutely right that his message is externalizing, and what I noticed is that when Bernie Sanders was running in 2016 against Hillary and then Trump’s running in the primaries, I thought, Wow, their rhetoric is so similar. They’re all pointing to an external force and saying, “You can blame them for your problems and you should elect me to come in and fix it for you.”

40:23 Emily Ekins: And it’s concerning that it does seem that politics incentivizes this kind of behavior because what kind of political leader, doesn’t jump at the opportunity, it seems, to tell people that they can blame somebody else and they should elect them to solve their problems, and that’s probably what’s gonna happen this November.

40:41 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, it is very concerning, I’ve been thinking, fairly pessimistically now about the state… We’re a pandemic. We’re in a lot of unrest and the state of American politics going forward, where this narrative is just sort of bounced back and forth by people. Either the Sanders and his heirs and then Trump and his heirs, and it is somewhat interesting for millennials to kinda go back to your or zillennials and younger people, to go back to your point about… I don’t even know what their called anymore, but… About younger people that you do have a situation. What the libertarians would say about this, in many of these situations, is that due to government involvement are three really important things: Education, health care, and housing have become extremely inaccessible compared to what it was for our parents. And then you get the lack of locus of control feeling about those things, and then pushing for externalizing and it kinda doesn’t look rosy to me, I don’t know if it looked rosy to you going forward, if there’s something in the data that you say, Oh, there’s gonna be some real libertarian or individual responsibility coming up here when there are a lot of genuine grievances that I think millennials have.

41:54 Emily Ekins: Right, I completely agree. So that’s what I was trying to emphasize, and I hope that I communicated it the way I intended, is that absolutely, there are external forces that you don’t have any control over that affect your life. And that certain forces disproportionately affect some people more than others, and that’s not fair, and from a public policy standpoint. We want to address that, we want to improve access to quite quality education for all students, for all kids, we wanna improve access to good quality housing, expand access to healthcare, all of those things, and that’s from a public policy perspective, we want to do. It’s not the case that… There seems to be evidence that there is racial bias in the criminal justice system, and it doesn’t mean that any one… It is absolutely valid, and we should acknowledge that it’s… Excuse me.

42:45 Emily Ekins: Let me be clear with what I’m saying, it’s absolutely valid to acknowledge that and saying that racial bias in policing in criminal justice is wrong and we must stop that. And so I think that sometimes people misunderstand this discussion by saying that if we wanna emphasize the internal locus of control for individual personal meaning and happiness, that that means we should just ignore the injustices all around us, and that’s false. We don’t wanna do that. But I do think that there’s a fine line between to what extent do we individually emphasize one over the other in our own personal life versus what do we seek to improve as society going forward.

43:31 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I think it’s difficult because especially now, you brought in the policing fact, which we can touch on a bit here, which you’ve also done surveys on, but it’s difficult with figuring out… As you said, it’s very important that you don’t minimize and it’s not even rhetorical strategy, these impediments saying African‐​Americans are not minimal in any way, but it’s hard to kind of figure out how you talk about this without sounding like you’re blaming everyone for not getting ahead because they didn’t have enough personal responsibility.

43:58 Emily Ekins: Right, that absolutely has to be… That has to be part of the conversation, and I feel like… Some people have talked about disentangling fault from responsibility. And I think that there might be something useful here, ’cause I think we spend a lot of time saying, “Well, whose fault is it that this problem exists?” Okay, so there’s some value in trying to figure that out because we obviously think if we could figure out whose fault it is, we could stop the problem, but sometimes I think that it’s also useful to disentangle that and say, “Okay, so the problem exists, we should try to fix that. Let’s set that aside for a moment and think about how can we fix the problem?” And a lot of times, focusing on how we can use our own agency to make things better is also an important approach, and that we can only do that if we disentangle fault from responsibility. Even though both conversations need to happen, sometimes we get bogged down in the whose fault is it? So much that we don’t actually try to solve the problem as individuals using our own agency.

45:03 Aaron Powell: Meaning has played a large role in a lot of this conversation, and the problem of people without this strong sense of meaning then have these other beliefs, and the people with the strong sense of meaning seem to do better. And one of my worries is that we increasingly see people trying to find meaning in politics. And that the more you invest your meaning in politics, the more corrosive politics is going to become because you’re defining yourself through political views and defining others through theirs. And how do we start to re‐​establish meaning for people who have lost it? Particularly when it seems like we’re a secularizing society, and for a lot of Americans, religion was a source of meaning, and particularly young people are much more secular than prior generations, and that doesn’t seem like that’s necessarily going to come back. Is there stuff in the data about how people who have meaning find it in ways that we could learn from and try to instill more of it?

46:07 Trevor Burrus: [chuckle] I’ve just… Aaron, that question was great. I was thinking, “Tell us how to save America, Emily.”


46:15 Aaron Powell: Please, do.

46:16 Emily Ekins: It’s so hard. It’s something, I think, we all think about. Well, we think about, how can we improve happiness and meaning in our own lives and those around us? And it’s hard because it does seem like some of the ways that people did that in the past, they’re declining. For instance, religiosity, religion has played a major role in the past. But to your point of secularization, what about people that aren’t religious? There needs to be a way for people to find meaning and purpose in their life too. And it seems like, from the data that we had, it seems like trying to take on as much responsibility as you can may offer the secret ingredient to unlocking that for people. And I think it’s really important to distinguish between happiness and meaning, ’cause those are not always the same thing. Especially if a person has clinical depression, where they actually have a hormonal imbalance, where it’s hard for them to feel happiness, that’s something that an individual can’t really control.

47:21 Emily Ekins: But meaning is separate. And meaning, I think, can be found by trying to take on as much responsibility as we can, and trying to use our agency as much as we can. And so, an example of this, I thought, with what’s happening right now with the protests over racial bias and policing, I’ve noticed a lot of conservatives saying, “Well, it’s not the police’s fault, it’s not… ” They’re pointing fingers at everybody else in some cases. And then, I just noticed a lot of people’s finger‐​pointing at other people and not focusing on themselves. Now, some did, obviously. But I thought the secret ingredient should be, whenever you’re seeking to solve a problem, let’s start with the assumption of, “Here’s what I can do to make the problem better.” [chuckle] Rather than… If you’re ever starting a sentence with, “Well, I would try to help, but… Nothing that I do matters until someone else changes,” it’s not just not gonna be effective. So, however we can, within our own domain, use our own personal agency to try to make things better, I think, is the best first step. And anyone that is suggesting otherwise, I would be cautious [chuckle] about their approach.


48:49 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or on your podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.