So What's the Way Forward?

So what’s the way forward?  The route depends on the destination, and so first I have to articulate what I want.

I want a progressive government that champions women’s rights and racial justice, and that continues our tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants into a shared culture that includes pride in our freedoms, strength in the face of threats, and optimism about the future. I want a government that makes economic justice a paramount goal, recognizing that, along with a celebration of pluralism and the protection of minority rights, economic opportunity is a cornerstone of stability in a democratic society.  I want us to pour resources into clean energy development and to take the international lead on fighting global warming.  I want an engaged and global, but not hawkish, foreign policy, and I want us to scale back our military projection capabilities as we reduce our dependence on (and need to protect access to) foreign oil.

You want to know why we’re so divided right now?  Not why we’re so different or how we're different (anyone paying attention ought already to have known the answer to those questions).  I mean, why are our differences tearing us apart? Because since at least the 1970s, both Democratic and Republican leadership have favored laws that break unions, de-regulate banks and the financial industry, create tax loopholes for the rich, and gut the social safety net.  It is true that Republicans and Democrats have different constituencies and on many issues their policy prescriptions are different. But they have both supported policies which have resulted in an obscene and historically unprecedented wealth disparity.  And so the differences between us have become more hate-filled as the pie shrinks.  Rural whites are left to resent the well-off cities - with all their liberals and people of color and their economically independent women. 

We liberal city-dwellers resent them right back, by the way. The untold resentment-and-fear story in the last decade or so involves not the top 1% but the next 14% right below them.  These folks, who make up the bulk of our society's professionals and mid- to high-level managers, make money that working-class rural folks envy, and yet they feel tenuous because no matter how hard they work their retirement is not secure and they worry about passing on their comfortable lives to their children.  And so, they have been (we have been) willing to tolerate policies that hurt the lower 85% because those policies will help their (our) stocks keep rising, and protect their (our) mortgage tax credits and tax-free college savings accounts.  Progressive, liberal, and centrist leadership – in government and the media, but in other institutions, too – have for a long time felt self-congratulatory for having the “right” stands on race and women’s rights and the environment and religion (liberal, tolerant, or none at all), all the while they watched their 401ks and 403bs grow and tolerated mass incarceration as a means to control people of color (especially African Americans - Ferguson didn't happen in isolation).

There is an additional reason, too.  The geographic distribution of the left/right split is compounded in an era of de-regulation of the media with a knowledge-universe divide.  And for this, also, our leadership has much to answer.  The mainstream media simply ignored or laughed at the alternative universe built by the alt-right (and even mainstream-right) media.  We have tolerated a culture of climate-change denial, looked at images of our first Black President and his family depicted as apes and shrugged our shoulders as if to say, “Well, you know, that’s them and they’re just ignorant,” and then gone back to business-as-usual.  It’s been more entertaining – and more profitable – for the mainstream media to accept this split universe and normalize it.  Even NPR has been seeking out “conservative viewpoints” on issues and then promoting the dangerous fallacy of false equivalency by treating demonstrably untrue statements as “another point of view which we must respect.”  (There is a respect problem, but more on that below).

I think there’s an additional piece, too, which is harder to write about because it’s more amorphous, and doesn’t map neatly onto voting blocks or constituencies, and because no one wants to see himself, or herself, implicated in this part of it.  Sexism, racism, xenophobia – these appeal and resonate beyond the hard-core conservative Republican base, beyond the white working-class men and women who supported Trump in the swing states.  How many men cheered inside when they heard Trump boast about grabbing women?  How many women who live in a culture in which powerful men are protectors (and in which they need that protection) are willing to live with his behavior toward women because they believe it will ultimately bolster the status of their own male protectors?  And let’s be honest, here – Driving While Black is not just an offense in the rural south or small-town Appalachia.  This explains, in part, the remarkable staying power and organizing power and mobilizing power of the Christian Right in an era in which 50% of Americans no longer even pretend for survey takers that they go to church and about 40% of those under the age of 35 won’t identify with any religious label.  The Christian Right rhetoric about lifestyle and values and women’s roles resonates far beyond their base who care so much about abortion.  That rhetoric is interpreted by many who don't really care about religion per se as signaling a like-mindedness on gender traditionalism, on the value of white supremacy, and on resentment about the decline of a rural, culturally white and Christian way of life.

So what do I do, going forward? What do we all do, all of us who want the same things that I want?  I think there are things that everyone can do, and things that leadership in the Democratic Party, the media, and other influential institutions can do, as well.

Everyone can . . .

·       Figure out what you actually want and name it, commit to it, and make it a part of your life by putting in time, getting involved, and staying informed.  I have lost patience with friends who started saying, “Oh, now we should all get along” on November 9th.  It’s not that I don’t want unity.  We desperately need real unity, but real unity is difficult and takes time and hard work. What I won’t tolerate is co-dependency and appeasement. And I won't tolerate cheap sentimentalism used as a shield of one’s own personal comfort at the expense of a functioning democracy.  My connections who are saying that now that we should "get along"?  Here's what they mean: “I hate politics and having to think about difficult things and I never want anyone to disagree with me and anyway, I’m white and live in a city and have a decent job (that I’m worried about keeping and I still somehow don’t seem to be able to relax about retirement) and can’t you just leave me alone with all your calls for action so I can just go back to pretending that it doesn’t matter that we just elected a racist, sexist, xenophobic demagogue because I’m a good person and if I admit what just happened I’d have to do something and can’t you see I’m busy and comfortable and don’t want to be bothered and anyway in four years everyone will see their mistake and it will all be okay?”  To which I say you are part of why we are sitting here in this mess.  As, honestly, I have been part of the problem, too.

·       Call out the lies.  Climate change is happening, it’s driven by man-made causes, and we can effect change.  Racist incidents, violent ones, are happening all over the country and it is directly because Trump courted and validated the previously-fringe ideas of the alt right.  Your taxes, and mine, will go up under Trump’s plan, while his go down.  Deregulation of business will hurt the environment and the economy.  Women’s rights to their own bodies will be taken away, not because a majority of Americans want it but because Trump will most likely honor his pledges to the Christian Right, and so their values will become enshrined in law in a nation in which they are increasingly out of step with the values of the majority.  Call out anyone who denies these truths or others.  Call them out.  Now.  A year from now.  Three years from now.  When he’s up for re-election. Keep calling them out.  If you don’t – then you’re part of normalizing the alternative knowledge-verse, and it’s a scary place in there.

·       If you’re white and economically comfortable like me, you can do something for racial justice in your community (you do have the time, you're not scrambling to make rent money or buy the kids shoes). Give money to organizations that work for the rights of people of color (POC) and immigrants.  Do support Planned Parenthood and do volunteer as a clinic escort. Find out if your community is doing anything to promote better relations between the police and people of color who live there and if so, go to those meetings and see if you can help, even if it’s just bringing donuts and showing up. Sure, you can’t do everything – but pick one thing and go do it. Because the complacency of privileged white educated people has been a big part of the problem, the feeling that history is on your side so you don’t really have to do anything to bring about the changes that you want. If you’re a person of color, I am loathe to advise you because I'm aware of just how privileged I am; my hope is that POC go to local Democratic Party events and demand that they start representing your interests in more substantive ways.

·       We have a two-party system and to those who want a third party, I’d say that the best thing you can do is to work hard to get Democrats back in power. They are the only ones who are likely to help you work on legislation that will help make that a realistic possibility.

·      To everyone else I say work as hard as you can to get the Democrats back in power.  BUT demand that the party change in important ways (see below).

Party Leaders, Media Elites, and Other Influencers can . . .

·       If one more person says that Hillary got more votes than anyone except Obama and then just leaves it at that, I think my head will explode.  It’s not “natural” that African-Americans voted for Obama at higher rates.  It’s that for a long time the Democratic Party has treated people of color like the Republican Party has treated evangelicals – like folks who have nowhere else to go.  The Democrats desperately need to start now on a grass-roots plan to get more people of color involved in local and state party organizing, to run more POC candidates, and to consult more substantively with POC representatives on policy initiatives.

·       In the Rust Belt swing states, the Democratic Party has to reach out and start convincing people that they have more to offer than better management of the same old corporate-cozy, global-capitalism-cheering way of doing things. The populist fervor of the past 18 months is not going away.  It will sweep Trump into a second term if the party doesn’t respond, now, by building more grassroots support among working-class whites, not only in the Rust Belt but beyond.  People who say Sanders is “the problem” this year should take a long, hard look at the Michigan primary results and remember that he had things to say to people that resonated with their sense of despair.  And they are despairing in Michigan, and in Ohio and Pennsylvania and in small rural towns in northern Minnesota and in the vast red swath of the middle states.  Democratic leaders need to understand that people who feel they have no options have no reason not to burn down the house.  And they have to understand that in many (not all) of those places, there is real discomfort with Trump as a person and with the more hateful parts of his message.  There’s an opportunity, here, to step in and position the party for 2020 but the clock is ticking.  The media can help – not by denying that racism and sexism and xenophobia are part of the problem, or by writing navel-gazing pieces “discovering” the poverty of rural America, but by writing cold-eyed analytical pieces about what kinds of economic policies will actually help the economically dispossessed.

·       Understand that the message of the Christian Right on women’s roles resonates far beyond their base.  There’s more than one way to think about what feminism means.  Germany, for example, has a much more pro-family, pro-child version of feminism.  The feminism in the US has been more about focusing on equal political and economic rights for individual women, which is interpreted by many cultural conservatives as insensitive to valued differences in men’s and women’s domestic roles and as unresponsive to the loss of economic and cultural supports for valued gender identities.  I have benefited enormously from the US brand of feminism, and am NOT arguing that it should be rejected or vilified.  But the conception of what it might mean to have policies supportive to women has to expand, and party leaders, change makers, and influencers must try to understand why so many women in this election didn’t break Democratic simply because the head of the ticket was a woman. Sexism is of course a big part of that, and might not be all that easy to change. But it’s not the whole story; a lot of women don’t see themselves as sole political or economic actors, but rather as embedded in families and communities in which running for political office, having your own independent retirement account, or having a shot at the high-powered job are not the relevant issues.  So, if Democrats want to get “the woman vote” in bigger percentages, there needs to be a discourse that makes women who are not just like me (a Ph.D. tenured professor at a major R1 flagship university living in one of the most progressive cities in the country) feel like they have a reason to support Democratics over Republicans. The good news? There are lots and lots of reasons for them to do that, if the Democrats start now convincing them that their concerns are heard and addressed. 

It is worth remembering not only that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but that most Americans agree with her views on climate change and abortion rights. Most white Americans, I truly believe, understand that racism is a problem (perhaps I am blind on that, though, because I don’t want to believe that my people are evil).  Most favor expanded rights for women, and are happy with same-sex marriage.  Many want universal healthcare.

But right now, that should not be comforting.  Because despite that, the Democrats lost an election to a man that party elites, media elites, and opinion influencers either didn’t see coming or dismissed out of hand.  And right now, these powerful people are in danger of repeating their mistake by spending a lot of time focusing on themselves and defending the party establishment that so completely dropped the ball  by ignoring a historic wave of economic populism and by taking their core constituencies for granted.  I know why Trump supporters think the liberal elite are smug and out of touch. I also know why many Democrats and Independents are so complacent and politically indifferent. 

I can’t do anything about those died-in-the-wool religious conservatives who truly believe that abortion is murder.  I don't agree with them, but I respect their values-based decisions, including voting.  I can't reach or persuade the hard-core alt-right racists who will never rest until they take away the rights and freedom and safety of people of color, and although I repudiate them I know that won't change their minds.  (I will still repudiate them.)  

But the rest of us – the rest of us can’t rest until we beat back this rising tide of hate and resentment.  And if we fail now, this is just the first shadow of the oncoming darkness.