They Will Always Remember How You Made Them Feel
*deep breath* I would like to say something that I think a lot of my friends on the left are going to find controversial. But I think it’s too important to leave unsaid, and here’s why:
The Republicans only need to control one more statehouse to hold a Convention of States and pass Constitutional amendments. Use your imagination and think of what we on the left would do if we had the ability to unilaterally amend the Constitution: we would drag America kicking and screaming into the 21st century, without remorse or mercy. Now imagine a scarily likely future in which we lose just one more statehouse: Liberalism and social justice as we know them are gone. Forever. If we don’t pull together now, strengthen our communities, interest groups and institutions, and present a unified front, we run the risk of irreversible damage to our country.
The political left is in tatters and the Democratic Party is in the worst shape it’s been in modern history. We are at the lowest ebb of our power. We can no longer afford to be divided. We have to stop the circular firing squads. We need solidarity. We have to realize that none of the left’s various coalitions are capable of understanding what it’s like to be a different race or gender or sexuality or neuro-configuration or any other crude markers of identity; most of the time, we human beings are devastatingly bad at imagining what it’s like to be another person of the SAME race and gender and sex.
But we can all recognize that you only get what you give away. We can acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a perfect ally. We can forego the luxury of purity and seek power here in the real political arena, which is unsexy, petty, messy and complicated. The only way to get there is solidarity — not just with those of us already here in the coalition, but with people that maybe don’t understand us well, or that we don’t understand well, but who are as in need of political power as we are, and are willing to team up.
Solidarity requires no virtue signaling or ally theater or public displays of moral superiority or privilege shaming. It is partially born out of empathy, yes, but a big part of it is also a simple quid pro quo calculation: I need you because I can’t do this on my own. We need to be humble enough to admit that we need each other. Men need women. Women need men. People of color need white folks. White folks need people of color. Us bisexual folks need our gay and lesbian community, and LGBT folks could never have come as far as we have without straight and cis allies. And all of you need us bisexuals, because Freddie Mercury and David Bowie and Frida Kahlo, duh. What I’m saying is that we can’t take our allies for granted, and we can’t even take for granted that we “should” have any allies. We are not entitled to anyone else’s help and no one is entitled to ours. We have to make the effort. We have to show up for others in the exact same way we hope others will show up for us. That means having a relationship, which means hard work. And it means we can’t change our partners; we can just try to be the best partners we can and try to have faith that they’ll do their best, too.
Practically, I need to remember what Maya Angelou said: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” That means that if I say something political about straight people in general and a straight person gets upset by that, I need to do a better job of taking the high road and acknowledging that their feelings are hurt and that it wasn’t my intent. I don’t need to call them out for being fragile or accuse them of being a secret homophobe. We’re past reason at this point and there’s a human being standing in front of me who feels, however unfairly or incorrectly, that I have hurt them. Now, this is a fact: it’s not my fault that they’re fragile, and it’s not my fault that their feelings are hurt by political reality. This is also a fact: if I’m thinking about the greater good, about the health of a big political coalition that includes many people that don’t all fully “get” each other and are operating at various levels of understanding and education and awareness, I need to prize my relationship with that person over my desire to be right. No one wants to give me empathy if I’m unwilling to give it away.
But maybe we can’t always get empathy from our allies, and you know what? That’s okay too. Maybe sometimes we can just have an ally that promises to vote for something that’s important to us if we vote for something that’s important to them. We can’t fully understand each other’s experience, so why demand that everyone fully understand ours if all we need is for them to vote the same way we are? Solidarity doesn’t always feel warm and fuzzy; sometimes it feels like cold, rigid determination. Sometimes it feels like being patient while your Machiavellian machinations silently gestate. Right now, to me, it feels like fear, because my terror at the thought of being ground into dust under the alt-right’s heel is greater than my desire to punish and alienate a potential political ally who has committed the venial sin of being ignorant in a different way than I am.
We have got to build our coalition. That doesn’t necessarily mean reaching out to the right or trying to convert Trump supporters; it can also mean reaching out to the 3 in 5 Americans that didn’t even vote in 2016. But I’ve got a hard truth to tell you: That 3 in 5 wishes a pox on both of our houses. Most ordinary Americans who don’t have a degree in cultural studies and have no idea what a microagression is and think discrimination is wrong no matter who is being discriminated against — they hate both the left and the right. They don’t look at us and see a welcoming environment where they can come and get to know us and exchange ideas and decide for themselves whether our coalition is right for them. They think we’re dogmatic, compulsory, prescriptive, prone to oversimplification, filled with directionless rage, going around sticking our fingers in people’s chests, checking people’s privilege (which they don’t believe they have,) and making them feel ashamed for who they are and what they’re not yet aware of. They think we’re the PC Principal from South Park. This is a totally unfair caricature about 90% of the time, but like it or not, we’re all being held accountable for the worst, angriest, most hateful things that leftists say on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook. Our anger is real and valid, and it needs to be aired, heard, processed and acted upon in a place where it’s safe to do so. But that place is not the Internet, because public shit-talking is a gigantic political messaging liability with the people we desperately need to win over to our side.
It’s not necessarily your fault, you as an individual, that this is how things are; but it’s your responsibility, you as an individual, to fix it. Sorry. But who else will? Conservatives? The alt-right? The disaffected? God?
Denying political science and psychology is every bit as dangerous as denying climate science. We need to persuade people to ally with us, and persuasion requires a relationship. The other party has to be interested in what you have to say, has to have some sort of stake, some affection for you or mutual self-interest before they have any impetus to listen or change their behavior. This is not my opinion; this is science. But the culture of the left by and large insists that elitist prescriptions, finger wagging, virtue signaling, identity manipulation, social confrontation and now street violence (FFS!) are useful political tactics.
Well, just look around. Are those tactics working? Are we winning? Do we have a large, durable political coalition capable of gaining and retaining power in our current electoral system? Do we set the terms of debate? Do we have the White House? Congress? The Supreme Court? Privilege theory is 40 years old now. What has the left achieved over the last 40 years? Have we passed the ERA? Equal pay for equal work? Safe, accessible contraception for all women? Safe, accessible abortions for all women? Police reform? Prison reform? Robust voter protections? A revitalized labor movement? Durable protections for LGBT folks? Protections for Muslims? Gun control? Reduced military spending? Protections for undocumented people? Student debt relief? Universal healthcare?
The answer is: None of the above. Despite the fact that opinion polls regularly show that the majority of Americans agree with us on almost all of the above issues.
So why do we persist in this anti-scientific mindset that our tactics — which have failed us again and again — are the ones that will work this time? Why keep telling jokes and sneering at conservatives and spreading memes about punching Nazis and crossing our arms and preaching to our ever-shrinking choir that it’s everyone else’s problem that they aren’t on board yet? Why keep acting like we’re the smartest and best when we’re losing worse than at any other time in modern history? Why keep insisting that the problem is solely with the rubes, that they just need to get their heads out of their homophobic, racist, sexist asses and get woke (which is not our responsibility, it’s theirs, or maybe God’s?) Why do we persist in the insanity of trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
This is our four-minute warning. We are on the brink of losing our relationship with mainstream America — the right and the middle and the disaffected — all of them. We are fighting with each other non-stop, we don’t trust each other, we each think the other is just horrible. Everyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship understands that when things get hard, you have to do a gut check: What’s more important here? Being right? Or saving the relationship? Is a compromise possible that all parties can live with while keeping our integrity intact? Can we rekindle our love for each other, or if that’s impossible, at least learn to live with each other again?
If we can’t save this relationship, we’re just going to lose and lose and lose until we’ve lost so much, the conservatives have become so powerful, that it has become illegal for us to win. We will have been pushed outside the boundaries of accepted political discourse, relegated to the same fringe where we once contained the alt-right and their poisonous hatred. At best, we will have failed ourselves and the next generation; at worst, the American left as we know it will be consigned to the dustbin of history.