Why Are Liberals SO Upset?

04/26/2017 08:30 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2017

Liberals are reacting to Trump’s election in dramatic ways. Depression, anxiety, anger, etc. are common. Conservatives are generally puzzled about the extreme reactions of the liberals. Why are liberals distraught rather than merely disappointed? Are liberals just snowflakes, or sore losers, or drama queens?

To bridge the partisan divide, liberals and conservatives will have to interpret each other’s positions and reactions in charitable rather than pejorative ways. Attributing severe character flaws to each other not only worsens the political situation, but also destroys families and friendships.

Here I shall use a Biblical passage to offer conservatives a plausible, charitable explanation for the extreme reactions of liberals. (Next month I shall offer a plausible, charitable explanation for what seems to liberals to be bigotry on the part of conservatives.) In brief, liberals are agitated not (just) because they are out of power or because their agenda will be reversed, but because they fear Trump’s election will destroy American democracy.

Three sorts of challenges

  1. After escaping from Egypt, Moses faces a series of challenges from the Israelite people. Some of these challenges are leaderless grumblings about particular policy choices. These include the demand for meat (Num 11), the refusal to enter the Promised Land (Num 14), and the demand for water (Num 20).
  2. The Golden Calf rebellion (Ex 32), the ecstatic prophet rebellion (Num 11:24-29), and the Cushite woman rebellion (Num 12) are a different sort of challenge. First Aaron, then Elad and Medad, and finally Aaron and Miriam seek to share authority with Moses.
  3. The final rebellion led by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram is yet another sort of challenge. The Bible flags this difference. While the leaders of the previous three rebellions are not punished (except for Miriam’s minimal punishment), the leaders of the final rebellion are swept into Sheol. Understanding the distinctive features of the final rebellion will explain not only the extreme punishment of its leaders, but also the extreme reactions of liberals to Trump’s election.

Why is this rebellion different than all other rebellions?

One difference is deception, Moses offers Dathan and Abiram a chance to dissociate themselves from Korah’s rebellion. They refuse and reply to Moses,

“Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” (Num 16:13)

The “land flowing with milk and honey” is not Egypt. Egypt was hardly a utopia for the enslaved Israelites. The phrase, “land flowing with milk and honey” refers to the Promised Land. But blaming Moses for the Israelite departure from the Promised Land is outrageous. After all, Moses urged the Israelites to enter the Promised Land; it was the Israelites who refused. Dathan and Abiram are simply lying, or as we might say creating revisionist history or fake news.

The rebellion begins when Korah accuses Moses and Aaron of a power grab. Korah’s accusation is also deceptive.

“All of the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves about the Lord’s congregation.” (Num 16:3)

Korah’s challenge to the authority of both Moses and Aaron appears democratic and egalitarian. He correctly observes that Moses and Aaron do not deserve to lead because they alone are holy. But although it is true that all Israelites are holy (Lev 19:2), it is irrelevant. The authority of Moses and Aaron is not based on holiness. They have been explicitly elevated to leadership positions by God. Korah is lying when he accuses them of “raising themselves.”

Korah’s statement is not merely misleading; it is designed to flatter the crowd. Everyone wants to hear that he or she is as good as everyone else. Korah is not just a sophist; he is a populist, demagogue.

Moses replies to Korah and his followers,

“You have gone too far, sons of Levi” (Num 16:8).

Korah has crossed a red line. What prompts Moses’ outburst? The crucial difference between the Korah rebellion and the preceding challenges becomes clear when Moses lays bare Korah’s goal.

“Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” (Num 16:9-10)

In contemporary terms, Moses is saying that Korah and his followers are people of privilege who are, nevertheless, unsatisfied. They greedily want even more. Leaving the challenge to his own authority unmentioned, he accuses Korah of trying to depose Aaron.

To understand what further advantages Korah seeks, we must understand a bit about the political structure of the ancient Israelites. Although it is a superficially similar to our own political structure, there are crucial differences.

God has selected Moses as his chief prophet. This makes him functionally a chief executive. The council of elders are representatives of the several tribes, but they are not an independent legislature; they take orders from Moses. Moses has delegated much of the decision-making to a judiciary, but he retains the authority of the chief judge. God has stipulated that Aaron and his descendants constitute the priesthood. The rest of the Levites (including Korah) have subsidiary, Sanctuary-related duties. Ultimate authority is vested by God in Moses and Aaron.

Moses is accusing Korah of seeking to appropriate the duties and privileges of the priesthood. Korah’s own speech shows that he seeks to displace Moses, and thus control the executive and judiciary, as well. Korah’s rebellion is not (1) a rejection of policies, or (2) a bid to share authority. Korah rejects the authority of Moses and Aaron (and implicitly suggests that all Israelites are qualified). By doing so, (3) Korah rejects the foundation of the Israelite political structure, namely God (Num 16:11). He seeks to transform one sort of state (theocratic) into another (pseudo-democratic).

Liberals’ Reaction to Trump’s Election

If liberals saw their clash with Trump and the GOP as merely a conflict (1) over policies, or (2) over leadership, then frustration would be the appropriate reaction. Liberals would be overreacting. But liberals (and plenty of conservatives) take Trump and the GOP to be engaged in a rebellion similar to Korah’s rebellion. Liberals think that Trump and the GOP are (3) attempting to change the foundation of American political structure by attacking the institutions upon which democracy depends: independent judiciary, free press, trust in government, an educated electorate, fair elections, tolerance of diversity, etc. Liberals are reacting so severely because they think Trump and the GOP are trying to transform one sort of state (democratic) into another (authoritarian).

Notice that this explanation of the liberals’ reaction to Trump’s election does not attribute character flaws to liberals. Liberals’ reactions are appropriate to their beliefs about what is happening. At worst, they are mistaken rather than histrionic. Are they mistaken? Well, that would be another article.

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