Can We Talk (and Should We): Post Election Thoughts
By Bernie Mayer
In the 1870’s in Tsarist Russia, leftists pursuing social reform left the cities and went to live among the oppressed peasants to learn from them and to liberate them. This movement to “return to the people” went over like a rat sandwich. While the recently freed serfs had serious grievances against the elites in far away Moscow and St. Petersburg, they did not much care to be patronized by the Narodniks as these leftists were called. Later the peasants became a very powerful but rather amorphous force for social revolution and played a major role in the overthrow of he tsarist government in 1917—only to be marginalized yet again when the Bolsheviks came to power.
The well meaning but essentially patronizing call that so many liberals are expressing, and that many conflict specialists have also put forward, to listen to the voice and the pain of the white working class have awoken the Narodniks from some deep recess of my brain—that part which stores memories from my time as a European History major in the 1960’s. The circumstances are of course completely different, but the queasiness I experience at the rapid rush to attribute the results of this election to how out of touch liberal elites are, and to prescribe reaching out to the working class, and more specifically the white working class seems to me to be naïve and patronizing—although well intentioned, as was the return to the people movement of the 1870’s.
To all the overly certain analyses of how the liberal establishment screwed up and the decisive prescriptions for what needs to happen now, I say—not so fast. Not so fast to lay blame for what happen on the “smug liberal elite”—which is as much a simplistic stereotype as the “deplorable bigoted Trump supporters.” Not so fast to prescribe listening as the major challenge. Not so fast to try to organize reconciliation processes. Wringing our collective hands, laying blame, and focusing on listening—are incomplete answers at best. Why?
The structure of our economic system is tilted towards the rich and powerful. The problems that working people face are profound and systemic. No one has really addressed these issues at their root—although Bernie Sanders came the closest. The problems that Clinton and her campaign had in this regard are those of emphasis and messaging on the one hand—and her pragmatic and gradualist approach on the other. She did advocate policies which are intended to address the problems that working people—of all colors—face, but these were not at the center of her message (which was often somewhat abstract and confusing)—whereas Trump’s pronouncements put the pain of the working class front and center—but without plausible policy prescriptions that would genuinely address their problems. On the contrary, his policies if carried out would accelerate the flow of money to the very richest of the rich. And his self-presentation as a savior of the working class was mixed together in a terribly dangerous way with authoritarianism, racism and nativism.
While there are plenty of smug liberal elitists—there are plenty of progressives who genuinely care about the working class, who have spent lifetimes advocating for it, and who come from a working class background. And conservatives are just as out of touch and smug as anyone else. Regardless of our background, unless we are willing to confront the systemic roots of the growing inequality in wealth and the replacement of higher paying jobs by ones that pay less and offer fewer benefits, we cannot claim to be responding to the problems faced by the working class.
In the last two weeks, there has been a proliferation of articles, op-eds, and social media activity arguing about the role that “identity politics” have played in the apparent disaffection of the white working class with the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders and Kellyanne Conway seem to agree at the very least that the white working class and maybe the working class more generally have been ignored by the Democrats and that this accounts for what happened in this election. Others, such as Van Jones and Charles Blow have argued that the election results reflect in large part a “white lash”, that the key and growing constituencies of the Democrats are minorities, and that race and class cannot be separated. Clearly, there was a surge of white, particularly rural, voters for Trump. But it’s also clear that men were more likely to vote for Trump, older people, those with higher incomes, and those living in less diverse areas. While educated voters, urban voters, women, minorities, and youth were more likely to support Clinton. We can slice and dice the results in many ways, but it is way to soon to be making definitive judgments about which combination of factors were decisive. What we do know is that there have been winners and losers in this post modern, global economy and that not enough has been done to address the real pain of the losers. We also know that college and graduate students are incurring higher debt, that home ownership is harder to attain for young adults, that higher paying jobs for working class, particularly those without a college degrees, are diminishing, and that unions—the major advocates for the working class—are weaker and more discredited than ever.
Have the “liberal elite” ignored this? To some extent, but probably not nearly as much as “conservative elite” has. The stress on the working class has been discussed and written about frequently, but no real champion has emerged. Obama proposed many programs to deal with the loss of quality jobs, as did Clinton, but he never made this a major political focus or used his “bully pulpit” to mobilize national political support for these programs. Trump, as far as I can tell, has not really proposed anything that will effectively deal with these problems other than to renegotiate trade deals—a feel good move which will probably hurt in the long run. Clinton proposed that too but not with fervor or credibility (probably because she know that scrapping TPP would not help much and she opposed it out of political necessity rather than conviction). Trump’s tax plans will enrich the rich. His infrastructure plan will assist corporations to become owners of public facilities—like roads and bridges (check out how well that has worked on the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario). But Trump made these concerns the center of his campaign—along with racial profiling. So in that sense, he has not ignored the plight of the white working class.
Are liberal elites out of touch with the real life experience of working people? All elites are. That is what makes them elite. Trump’s attacks on Mexicans, condescension to African Americans, and callousness to immigrants and refugees certainly betray a failure to understand what their experience has been. And what about his harsh attitude toward women—toward their medical needs, what it is like to be faced with a decision about terminating a pregnancy, and what is like to be subject to assault, discrimination and objectification?
There is something off about the discussion of identity politics vs. class politics. I don’t think you can attack economic inequities without also attacking racism. These problem are systemic, deeply rooted, and long in the making. This is something the American people sense. Trump positioned himself as the person who could change the system and “drain the swamp.” But his vision of the system is very narrow and simplistic. He sees it as being made up of the working people who staff our government, the media who sometimes exercise constraint over political leaders (and Trump), and anyone who ever supported Hillary Clinton. I hope he will find his way or be pressured by his base to adopt policies that could make a real difference for working people and to move away from his racist, misogynistic, and divisive rhetoric and proposals. His early appointments do not bode well. Progressive forces need to build a powerful movement in support of the genuine needs of working class Americans and against bigotry and discrimination of all kinds. I hope they will have some significant opportunities to support Trump in any serious efforts he makes to address working class concerns. I am not optimistic.
So where does this leave us conflict engagement types who (in my case) are also progressives concerning building bridges to Trump’s supporters—and listening to the working class?
I am certainly not against better communication and breaking down barriers that divide us. That has been one of the main themes of this series. But the focus on listening, on creating community dialogues across political, racial, economic, and cultural boundaries while reflective of important values that many of us hold, sounds to me patronizing, unrealistic, and tokenistic.
Sure everyone needs to listen and understand each other better. But listening is the easy part. Finding a forum or setting where listening can take place is harder. Harder still is speaking our truth with authenticity and humanity. Why is it any more incumbent on the “liberal elite” to listen than for anyone else? And why should Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters want to listen or be listened to by those whom they just defeated? If Trump truly wants to bring meaningful change that ultimately unifies the country, shouldn’t he and his supporters begin to reach out across these boundaries as well? The idea that one side has a special obligation to listen—and that somehow that will break down the divisions that this election has both reflected and created smacks of condescension. And it won’t work. Not yet. We have a lot of healing to do—and we face a long term struggle. If we try to force the process of reconciliation before we develop our capacity to engage in this struggle, we will fall very flat on our faces.
If there are opportunities to talk with those on “the other side,” we should take them or support those who want to do so. I just think wringing our hands about how bad we have been for not listening is actually part of the problem. Of course we need to take the plight of others, even those whose values we have real problems with, seriously. And we should be reflecting on our own elitism. But we should not be ashamed of our values and beliefs either. And for me these values include being authentic, speaking up for what I believe in, confronting bigotry, standing up for people who are vulnerable, and always examining my blind spots and prejudices.
I am willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me. There are people I will make a special effort to reach out to (have already). I am committed to trying to understand those I disagree with, I am also committed to speaking my truth and to calling out bigotry. I don’t think that those I disagree with are bad people. But racism, sexism, and xenophobia are major problems, and overlooking them is not a genuine road to understanding. Furthermore, people of color, immigrants, and the urban poor are the most unheard and marginalized of all. As important as it may be to connect with the largely Christian white working class, it is every bit as important to address the concerns of these groups as well.
I am not saying conflict specialists—really all of us—have no constructive role to play in promoting dialogue. We face four challenges that are not going to go away:
In The Conflict Paradox, I discuss seven dilemmas that we all face in conflict. The first one is cooperation and competition. This moment in our history places that challenge in high relief. Our desire to ultimately come together in a productive way can only be achieved if we also enhance our capacity to compete, but always within our basic value system about human relations.