I recently came across some thoughtful essays that attempt to explain what I and many acquaintances have been puzzling over – How can we be going backward as a country? Why is there a surge in justification for hatred of outgroups (women, disabled, immigrants, blacks, non-natives)? Why are we so divided on what makes America truly great? I don’t do politics well but I do value trying to understand why people think and behave so differently than I do. It is certainly a problem we, as a Nation, need to work at fixing.
Check out the short version: The Peculiar Populism of Donald Trump or the long read: A Tale of Two Moralities. I’ll attempt to summarize (though it’s tricky and there are lots of nuances like all things having to do with people, values, and ideas).
But first, let me take you back a few years ago when I fell afoul of some young women, liberal feminists, who valued social justice very highly. I recall the oft repeated “Check your Privilege”, a pathetic divertive phrase aimed to shut down opinions from white, middle to upper income (usually) men. These particular women with whom I had exchanges (who were intelligent, no doubt) never hesitated to tell me they were very knowledgeable (but weren’t and made huge gaffes) and strong (but weren’t, they frequently employed a victim status and wished for special treatment) and independent (though they often manipulated people to get attention) and were involved in the discourse about trigger warnings, safe spaces, Blockbots and #GamerGate. These were people who wanted to stand up for gay rights and black lives even if the gay and black people wished they’d sit down already. These concepts are really really liberal. And they do not resonate at all with the folks who are struggling to meet their daily needs, to just get by.
I mean the people who were more worried about keeping their job, paying medical bills, dealing with a disability that prevented them from working. Safe spaces were ridiculous concepts to people whose family members were dying of overdoses. The “check your privilege” women were the most privileged of all! They came from well-off families and had safety nets to catch them if they lost their jobs (or just didn’t like them enough to continue working). The smug, privileged people personified the left and many commentators have noted that Democrats should have been focusing on some real national problems instead. But the privileged don’t visit the small towns with high unemployment, closed up storefronts, poor health care, and no sources of joy. Not many people visit those dead end streets. They see no reason to. The people on that dark side of the national divide resent the intellectuals and upper class who tell them they shouldn’t be so racist or stupid and mock them for their beliefs and hopes. Yet, they will continue to eye suspiciously the immigrants who appear to get handouts while they themselves can’t accrue any support. In times of insecurity, people find a scapegoat (Muslims, terrorists, immigrants, gays, working women) for the changing world and put their money on a strong leader who speaks in short sentences and uncomplicated words, who acts like he knows what he’s doing and promises to fix everything.
The basis of the idea of the growing divide between these two sides of America is that those who are well off and do not have to worry about existing day to day have time and ability to feel concern about the outgroup “others” around them (they are no threat), to expend energy in personal fulfillment, and to exercise their freedom of expression to great degrees in their abundant spare time and with disposal income. The lady about to get evicted from her apartment because she lost her job and can’t find another is not going to be at all concerned about some students offended because their university invited a speaker they think is disgusting.
That’s the idea – that our different worlds and different worldviews are preventing us from seeing each other as real people. I get this. I lived in the poor small town that hated outsiders and resented the educated elite. I don’t think we city-dwelling elites thinking about how to spend our weekend and what new fancy dining place to choose have any concept of what it means to have to worry about surviving the next year. If we don’t start really thinking about the people in those rural towns and their needs, we are going to get deeper into Trump-level chaos.
There is a lot more to this, and, ironically, some high-level sociology and history references are cited. This stuff is not new. And the “why” actually makes some sense even if I still have difficulty accepting it and being sympathetic.
It’s why Trump won. And it’s why we might continue to be divided unless we can find common ground and consider we are one country under one government. We have to figure out how to make it work better than it does now.