Nikki Haley’s campaign ad is bad, but not for the reason you might think
The video is only three and a half minutes long. And yet, through this single ad and the response to it, we have front row seats to how what I call “the Certainty Trap” is destroying our political conversation. The Certainty Trap is a resolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that we’re wrong or that we’re simply not right in the way we think we are. And it’s corrosive. It leads us to conclude that anyone who disagrees with us is either an idiot or evil.
Let’s start with Nikki Haley’s ad for her 2024 presidential campaign. It opens benignly enough, with the former South Carolina governor reminiscing about her childhood in Bamberg, S.C. She talks about being neither Black nor white, but different. And she shares a lesson from her parents about the importance of focusing on similarities across groups, rather than the differences between them. She shows the viewer her pride in this country, saying “my parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America.”
And then, as we watch her walk along a railroad track, she narrows in on her point: “Some look at our past as evidence that America’s founding principles are bad. They say the promise of freedom is just made up. Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil.” And after a dramatic pause, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
We seem to be in the middle of an intractable culture war over the soul of this country. It’s a battle mired in fundamentally unknowable questions of intent — such as, was the Revolutionary War fought for slavery? Yet, despite the obvious limitations of our knowledge, we continue to make claims we can’t support.
Haley does this when she concludes, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Of course, every war has two sides. And this rhetorical sleight of hand is done by the other side, too. It’s present in the assertion that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes” and in the challenge to the moral integrity of anyone who disagrees.
The problem isn’t the speculation. It’s the certainty and the conviction with which it’s made. When we treat these answers as definitive and given, it gives us all the license we need to judge harshly and demonize people who disagree. So, in Haley’s world, this might mean that anyone who doesn’t get behind her rhetoric doesn’t love this country the way she does. And, on the flip side, it might mean that anyone who denies America’s racist roots is themselves invested in racism’s flourishing.
A version of this latter position was taken by the Daily Beast’s Wajahat Ali, when he talked about Haley and her campaign on MSNBC. Ali said, “I see her and I feel sad because she uses her brown skin as a weapon against poor Black folks and poor brown folks, and she uses her brown skin to launder white supremacist talking points.”
The assumption he’s making — what he appears to be certain of — is that there’s no justification for Haley’s position that’s worth taking seriously. If Ali were anything less than certain about this, he wouldn’t be able to draw the conclusion that he did, which is that, fundamentally, Haley’s words are “white supremacist talking points.” Let’s assume Ali is right — that white supremacists make some of the same points Haley was making. Does that mean there’s no other possible reason to make them? The Certainty Trap will lead you to conclude that the answer to that question is “yes.”
The corrosive effects of certainty on our national conversation are difficult to overstate. It keeps us in our silos and echo chambers and makes it extremely difficult to talk with people who see things differently. After all, who wants to talk to someone who thinks they’re evil? Making this point doesn’t mean there aren’t evil — or in this case, racist — people in the world. It’s a reminder to stop for a second and think about how we know who’s who and what’s what.
Ultimately, there’s plenty to complain about when it comes to Haley’s ad. At one point, she appears to be trying to drive home the point that she knows “real evil” and America isn’t it. As an example of real evil, she says, “When a woman tells you about watching soldiers throw her baby into a fire, it puts things in perspective.” Agreed — this is horrifying. But isn’t simply not putting babies into fires a bit of a low bar?
Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX and the faculty director of the Mill Institute at UATX. Follow her on Twitter @irakresh.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.