What do we do now?
Disclaimer: I write this only because so many people have asked me what I think, and it’s easier to write it only once. Unfortunately, I fundamentally think we really don’t know what’s going on, that our misplaced confidence in knowing what’s going on is the problem, that we refuse to see what is right in front of our face, that in the name of togetherness and even love, we essentially neglected half the country. And I write this because, to me, the cacophony of talking heads and empty opinions screams for clear-eyed leadership. I honestly don’t want to; I’m depressed and bothered about the harms of bigotry and hate, the setbacks to progress. Since this is so bothersome, I feel I have to share my thoughts about the way forward. Please read these as the reluctant words of an unsure elite liberal democrat.
The messenger sickens me, but the message is clear. A huge swath of the country feels left behind and abandoned, and they’re so upset, they chose an awful person for president. Clinton and Obama (1) tried to convince us all that things are getting better, but this largely rings true only for the blue state metro areas. From within this bubble, we couldn’t see that the reason Trump had so much support was because he tapped a feeling of being left behind that was real. Trump’s racism and sexism (2) should have alerted us to the fact that our fellow Americans are hurting so bad, they’d rather have his representation than none at all. We fixated on Trump the man and dismissed the story of how so many could say that he speaks for them.
You can’t convince people that their own experience is wrong.
If you’re suffering from the forces that we all know are problematic — you lost your manufacturing job, you can’t afford healthcare, the government fix costs too much and will fine you if you don’t sign up, the neighborhood kids are dying of heroin overdoses — then who could blame you for rejecting the message that things are getting better (even if they are)? Who could blame you for being angry? For wanting to break the system that is failing you and your family? For wanting to turn on the news and at least see the good old USA kick some ass?(3)
Interestingly, Bernie Sanders said all of this. He talked about how the have-nots have been left behind, how their lives have stagnated, and how they can’t get the basics of modern society. He talked about income inequality and affordable health care. And we swept him under the rug because we were afraid of the world socialist. We opted for the safe bet. We opted for what in many ways is a comfortable fantasy instead of cold reality.
I don’t think the election created a new reality as much as it unmasked a reality that had been brewing for a long time. It doesn’t excuse its ugliness, but it also can’t obscure the fact that we have to face up to this unpleasant reality. Progress cannot be achieved in a dream world.
What do we do now? I break this up into four parts, ourselves, our society, and our culture.
Starting with ourselves: We have to own up to a new reality, that we were missing a huge swath of hurt in the country. If we really care about progress and making things better, then we have to grapple with reality. For starters, that could mean taking the earbuds out of our ears in public, talking to people in the elevator and on the bus. It means turning off a constant diet of John Oliver and the Daily Show, of our facebook feed and the NYTimes. Take a look at the Wall Street Journal opinion pages or The Economist. Look for views that disagree with yours (David Brooks is a real palatable place to start). Adopt a stance of listening. Listening achieves the double threat of both dignifying others and humbling ourselves. When our world is tipped over, we really need to ground ourselves, to learn about the new landscape, and we can only do that if we shut up.(4) In the long term, I’m really not sure how to break out of the bubble. I’m interested in people’s ideas and thoughts.
Our culture: The beauty of being a listener, a dignifier, and a learner, is that we are also cultural warriors. I suggest taking out our earbuds, saying hi to people in the elevators and on the bus, and engaging instead of walling off and getting mad.
Our society: I’m distinguishing culture from society because I see culture as the interplay of values and meaning, and society as the interplay of goods and services. I supported Clinton because she shared my causes. In her absence, her causes are in even more need than before. I suggest sitting down and taking a real hard look at the causes that matter to us, and writing a check to one or more of them. Personally, I gave Clinton money, there’s no reason why I can’t give money straight to the causes I hoped she would champion. And if you’re looking for a political voice at the moment, I suggest reviewing Bernie Sanders’s vision.
Silver linings: I hate, hate sugarcoating. You can’t simultaneously be a reality fan and a sugar coater. But I truly do see a silver lining. A few of them actually.
First, Trump truly ran with the voice of Americans with a legitimate hurt. That voice was very ugly, and I’m not in any way condoning the many dark elements of the campaign and the damage it did and will likely continue to do. But he does represent at least a large segment of the have-nots for whom we currently do not have a plan. As above, he legitimates the language of Bernie Sanders.
Second, Trump is not Bush. Bush was the right wing millionaires and billionaires with a plan. They hit the ground running with people who knew how to operate the machinery of government. Hopefully Trump will spend his time yelling at congress.
Third, our politicians (I hope) don’t have to be afraid of saying something off-putting or offensive. Instead, they can simply say what the feel. If we can’t talk about the problems, we certainly can’t fix them.
Biggest fears: The tone of this piece belies a deep fear of hate crimes, civil unrest, and even nuclear war, not to mention any number of unforeseeable catastrophes, some of which we outlined in our statement declaring Trump a health threat. It’s important not to be alarmist, but it’s also important to be clear-eyed about this. Unfortunately, I don’t have any particular ideas, except that I hope for an organized political opposition that can restore true leadership as soon as possible.
Conclusion: I don’t have a conclusion. The old model of what’s going on is broken. I don’t have a new explanation or new model. It shows the danger of models, where the comfort of an explanation blinds us to what’s actually going on. I hope that you don’t jump for one of the zillions presently on hand from people who don’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Let’s all go back to the drawing board with a sense of humility and dedication to figuring out how to make it better. In the mean time, I cancelled my NYTimes subscription and will instead be reading fivethiryeight.com’s coverage of politics, culture and science.
Thank you for reading, feel free to email with criticisms, questions, and thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) I love Obama and Clinton, and I think they were right that things are in fact getting better for most groups, perhaps even for blue collar whites.(5) I think Obama’s efforts and Clintons plans are on the right track. But Obama and Clinton did not talk about (perhaps because they didn’t see) the profundity of how much blue collar whites don’t agree. Bernie did. It doesn’t matter whether he would have won or not. What matters is how we see things going forward, and we should not shy away from Bernie’s vision.
(2) If we are truly horrified by prejudice and racism, then we cannot ourselves be so prejudiced as to paint all Trump supporters as racist and sexist. Trump himself is racist- he used racist rhetoric to get votes. But if we assume that half of the country are degenerates, then we are engaging in the same behavior. I think it’s clear that the country is not as sensitive and even principled as we would like. But when I am in my car, tired and hungry after a long day at work, I have heard myself shouting obscenities at little old ladies. When things are bad, we’re just not that interested in principles and sensitivity. Who are we, in our comfortable worlds, to castigate others for dismissing their principles in favor of exercising their anger? I know I’m not above it.
(3) I grew up in working class upstate New York, overwhelmingly Trump territory. Subsisting hand-to-mouth with insecure jobs and no prospects, hoping they didn’t get sick or injured, living in small, broken down homes and cars — this is a life of near constant stress. It is loud, cramped, and bleak. It took me a long time to get off of my high horse and recognize that watching sports was one of the few outlets to their desire to feel connected to something larger.
(4) I completely recognize that by writing this I am not at all shutting up. Please see the disclaimer.
(5)I think automation and robots are going to be devastating to blue collar whites and many others. Driverless cars will replace almost the entire transportation industry, adding “transportation jobs” to “manufacturing jobs” as an entire voting block out of work. Massachusetts just eliminated all tolls. In a little while, I think I’ll be doing all my shopping on amazon. We have to take a universal basic income seriously.