A great deal of initial reaction to the Nov. 8 election has tended to simplification and demonization in a way that will only obscure reality and entrench biases. Predictably but regrettably many responses to President-elect Donald Trump’s victory have focused on the purported racism and sexism and bigotry of his supporters. Some bemoan the unlikelihood of any woman ever breaking through the presidential glass ceiling; others characterize Trump as a white nationalist whose rise to the Oval Office was fueled by racists and nativists.
Novelist and writer Attica Locke took a “name it and blame it” approach. Pointing to President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, Locke said “I think there’s a large segment of white folks who could not take that, the idea that this person was above them in some way. I think it was very dislocating in terms of their sense of identity.” When asked whether she should be more concerned about labelling Trump voters as racists, she responded, “I’m out with that. There’s a part of me that honestly feels like that level of politeness, where we’re not calling things what they are, is how we will never get forward. The fact of the matter is that you have to at best be able to tolerate racism in your president.”
Another graphic that has been making the rounds on social media, usually accompanied by some version of #neverforget, focuses on the difference in turnout for Hillary Clinton and Trump among various demographics, broken down by race and sex. The scapegoats turn out to be, as they so often do, some combination of whites and evangelicals.
Such naming and blaming may be cathartic, but it is hardly constructive. Instead, it serves to reinforce the very narratives that undergirded Clinton’s unsuccessful run for president. The reality is that a great variety of people voted for Trump and Clinton for a wide variety of reasons. It may be true that many were willing to “tolerate racism” or misogyny to some degree in Trump. But it is also the case that many #NeverTrump evangelicals voted for Clinton despite, for example, her vociferous support of Planned Parenthood. It is as unhelpful to characterize all Trump voters as white nationalists as it is to characterize all Clinton voters as warmongers or baby killers.
What such explanations exhibit is precisely the inability to sympathize with the views and motivations of others in a way that is charitable and respectful, even amidst deep and sharp disagreement. More than anything else, perhaps, this pathology has contributed to the increasing isolation of the two extremes of the American electorate. And both parties, to move forward in a positive and constructive fashion, need to embody a quite different ethos, one that really tries to understand what motivates and frustrates others, with as much charity and clarity as possible. The first step for Democrats in this regard must be to take seriously the hardships faced by the white working class.
The Left, Old vs. New
The inability to sympathize with the concerns that animated a whole set of disaffected and disgruntled citizens was perhaps the greatest contributing factor to the Democratic Party’s losses in this election. When Clinton faced off against an insurgent Bernie Sanders campaign in the primary, her nomination was insulated from competition by a variety of factors, including the superdelegate system and the maneuverings of the party machinery. An undercurrent of populist animus was apparent throughout this entire campaign. On the Republican side, these concerns finally coalesced around Trump. But on the Democratic side, these concerns were marginalized and finally subsumed under the larger identity-politics of “I’m With Her.”
In this way we might see the Clinton defeat as the latest iteration of a transformation of liberal and progressive politics over the last half-century. As the theologian Carl R. Trueman observes, perhaps the greatest change in the 20th century was from the Old Left to the New, from concerns oriented around material poverty, hardship, and inequality, to more psychological and personal-identity politics of the sexual revolution. Thus, writes Trueman, “Here lies the heart of the problem of the New Left: once the concerns of the Left shifted from material, empirical issues—hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease—to psychological categories, the door was opened for everyone to become a victim and for anyone with a lobby group to make his or her issue the Big one for this generation.”
So think here of Black Lives Matter, or any of the other varied and sundry colors of the rainbow and the identities that go along with them, and you’ve got the alphabet soup of contemporary Democratic political agendas. Clinton may have been late to the party on this score, but she became the figurehead of the victim-identity industrial complex. The result: The New Left forgot the Old Left and got left out this election cycle.
Trump has promised to address some of the temporal and material concerns of some of the people, even if in ambivalent and impossibly optimistic ways. Were Trump or any other politician to promise, or even deliver, a Rolls Royce in every driveway and caviar on every dinner table, the deeper problems of human society would remain, and to some extent be exacerbated.
Both parties and partisans should take this election as an opportunity to learn about a deeper, more comprehensive vision of the human person in society, one that worries not only about what we will eat, what we will drink, how healthy we are, or what we will wear. As a wise man (and the savior of the world!) once asked, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Legitimate concerns of white working class people in the United States need to be taken seriously, but they also need to be couched within a broader message about where to seek meaning and identity.
Some of that worth is found in worthwhile jobs and through earned income. Much more of that is found in loving relationships and through churches and houses of worship. Life is lived in a wide variety of institutions and in a host of social relationships and networks that give our lives substance and significance. That’s something we all need to learn, again and again, and it should be the key lesson of the 2016 elections.