Speaking The Same Language
We no longer speak the same language. On the left, we’re bemoaning the decision to elect Donald Trump, but little is being done to unpack the election on a personal level. For a group of people who paint ourselves as educated and enlightened, we’re being awfully close minded. Go look at the number of interviews that Arlie Russell Hochschild has given this election season. Her new book Strangers in their own land totally captures the frustration and anger in rural white America. And she wasn’t the first, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart all speak to the same issue, and those authors span the range of political viewpoints.
We were so eager to understand the Trump voter when we thought we were going to win, but when the tides turned so did our willingness to understand and listen. That simply can’t happen. If we lost the Obama coalition, it’s because we stopped speaking to working class Americans.
Obama ran on a message of change. McCain and Romney were establishment candidates through and through. But because the environment under Obama was conducive to the liberal project, we all started talking to each other. We used words like “male entitlement” and “privilege” in public without realizing that those words don’t translate beyond the doors of academia.
Like many other liberals, I read bell hooks and Fredrick Douglass in gender and ethnic studies classes in college. I dedicated hours per week for weeks at a time in reading and discussing concepts like inherent privilege and structural misogyny. But you know who never did that? Most people from my hometown in rural Alabama. Based on state averages, about 60% of young people in Alabama will attend college at some point. Less than half will receive a degree within six years. That leaves us with a state-wide population where only about 30% of young people will see college through to the end. When you look at educational attainment by state, Alabama is in the lowest quintile for the percent of the population with high school degrees, 4 year degrees and advanced degrees.
And having attended high school in rural Alabama, I can tell you that the public school system there does not teach gender and ethnic studies as part of the core curriculum. So where are the people in those communities being exposed to the ideas of white privilege and structural racism? Fox News, talk radio and Breitbart.
We’ve sacrificed the conversation and are letting our political opponents define the terms. Rather than engaging with the communities that would benefit from better economic and environmental regulation, we’re talking to each other in coded language about how righteous our causes are. That excludes the very people we need to engage as allies and allows their echo chambers to paint us with whatever brushes they choose.
I do not discount the role that misogyny, racism, Antisemitism, jingoism and xenophobia played in this most recent election. But I’m able to see those things because I pursued a path through the academy that valued self-examination and engagement with uncomfortable realities.
As I’ve written before, discounting any community as stupid or evil is wrong. It keeps us from seeing people as thoughtful actors with reasons for their choices. We can disagree with their reasons and we can fight to make sure that they’re being informed by the actual facts. But we can’t simply write them off as not worth our time.
Hillary was pilloried for saying you have to have a private and public position on certain issues, but she was 100% right. In private conversations amongst ourselves, we need to continue to discuss the ways that privilege and inherent structural biases impact our laws and communities. In the Jacobin and Mother Jones, we should be free to discuss these topics to our hearts’ content. Just as conservatives must be allowed to discuss ideas in the Wall Street Journal or the National Review.
But both sides need to recognize that those are necessarily partisan voices. We can be informed by them, but then we need to put down the liberal think piece or turn off Fox News and go into the public marketplace of ideas. There, we have to talk to one another. We have to turn off the coded language that makes us feel justified in the positions we already hold and try to understand someone else’s reality.
The pain of an African American in an over policed community is real. They need to feel safe in their own neighborhood and be able to raise children in an environment geared towards helping them succeed. But the pain of a Louisiana fisherman, displaced by oil spills or sink holes caused by the companies that offer the only new jobs in decades, is also real. They too need to be safe in their own community and be able to raise children in an environment that is conducive to a long and fruitful life. For both groups, government today may be seen as more of a hindrance than a help. Because of complicity in policing practices on the one hand and because of lack of control over private industry on the other.
But in today’s reality, neither of those groups are likely to talk to one another, let alone be able to understand one another. Yes, racism and misogyny are still real problems in the United States. It was naïve of anyone to think that they’d ever go away. But the better angels of our nature are fighting the evils of divisiveness and tribalism.
Liberals who only talk to liberals and write off half the country as evil or ignorant will change no minds. We’ll simply bicker amongst ourselves while an angry and united group works for everything that’s antithetical to our position. If we really believe that our aims can make life better for everyone, we have to show that to them. Start in your own communities. Stay engaged in local politics. Organize for city council candidates, county officials and local sheriffs that speak to your concerns. And most importantly, talk to people that don’t think or look like you.
I’ve always believed that the best revenge is living well. If we have the safest cities, happiest homes, most successful marriages and best economic outcomes that serve the entire community, we’d have to beat people off with a stick.