The tone and message of the Trump presidential campaign and the relatively weak support for the Democratic ticket are symptomatic of profound underlying change and problems in American society. Groups such as the white working class and rural poor for instance, who at first glance should see their interests to be with the Democrats, now make up a core constituency of Trump’s support. When asked why they support Trump it is because they see him as someone they feel pays attention to them and with whom they can relate even though many live pay check to pay check and he is worth billions of dollars.
The feeling of alienation from the Democrats and a closer connection to the Republican Party began in the 1960s first in response to Democratic support for black civil rights, then later for its repudiation of America’s involvement in Vietnam. From that point on, the working class and rural poor have become increasingly attracted to the conservative message to reassert traditional American values and ways of life, specifically Protestantism and white male dominance.
At first glance the conservative impulses of the working class and white rural poor seem counter-intuitive, but there exists a rationale for why they think and act as they do. First, these groups have come to see the total availability of resources to be fixed, if not shrinking, amplifying the fear of future loss. Secondly, people are not inclined to share benefits with those they see as different, even objectionable, particularly if they are also seen as competitors. Thirdly, they reject agendas they view to be undercutting or contrary to their core values. Government benefit programs are often seen as “hand-outs” debasing the value of hard work leading to laziness and dependency. Moreover, in the minds of many, secularism is equated with atheism which is in turned linked to government and liberals.
The divisions that now exist in American society were not created by conservatives, only exploited by them beginning in the 1960s with Nixon’s “Southern” strategy to attract disaffected white voters, followed by the Reagan campaign to entice Evangelicals back into politics. Actively pitting groups against one another continues today. As it stands, conservative, evangelical, white, older, poor and working class heterosexual males are pitted against liberal, secular, white and minority, younger, educated and upper class women, and men and homosexuals – resulting in the gridlock and toxic atmosphere now prevailing across the country.
If conservatives believe they are justified pursuing such an agenda it is because they follow two core principles foundational to American social and political values: individual self-interest and competition. They are not alone. These principles incentivize every other part of the political-social spectrum to build ‘tribes’ of like-minded people in their fight to gain at the expense of others not of their tribe. This means the political left is equally culpable in fostering and perpetuating a divided American society, such as in their attacks on the privileged upper class. This critique does nothing to abrogate the wealthy of their fundamental social responsibilities and personal actions. However, we can be assured that if we persist in engaging in class warfare, while there might be temporary victories, we will never build a system that supports a more equitable distribution of wealth over the long-term.
The left aggravate and perpetuate divisions in unintentional ways, as well by shifting their focus to causes who have momentarily gained widespread attention. When the demand for the right of same-sex couples to marry was the big issue liberal attention shifted there leaving other similarly marginalized groups feeling ignored. Resentment is compounded further by the fact many in those groups may have no sympathy for or are themselves prejudiced against homosexuals. It was for this reason a number of black Americans rejected the argument made by homosexual Americans that their call for civil rights was essentially the same. Another instance occurred when video recordings of police violence against blacks were posted on social media creating the Black Lives Matter movement, shifting the attention and energy of liberals and others to it. In the same way, we could ask what happened to the 2011 Occupy Movement and its spotlight on gross economic inequality and plight of wage stagnation endured by most Americans?
Further hampering the political effectiveness of liberals, and the left in general, is the fact the majority are white, more educated, and affluent than many of the people they purport to help presenting an obvious cultural barrier. Liberals who are sincere in their efforts to help are to be applauded; at the same time empathy alone only goes so far. Being mostly white, educated and affluent provides few tools to truly understand the circumstances of the people who have not enjoyed such benefits. Feelings of appreciation quickly turn to resentment with the first whiff of condescension, or those helping thinking they know better how to help than the people themselves.
So, what is to be done? It is not possible to offer a full answer to this question here. Still, a few key ideas just might point us in the right direction, starting with the understanding we are not speaking of a divide between ‘good vs. bad’ people, but rather how the system, with its principles and values, incentivizes or deincentivizes our choices and actions. To this end, it is our responsibility to reject the now prevailing social Darwinist ethos of ‘survival of the fittest’ and adopt a new approach, one which sees cooperation as the key to fulfilling the needs and aspirations of all people.
Of course, fault does not lie with the system alone. The more fundamental problem is in how we think and speak to and about one another. Prejudice is a trending topic of interest, first in connection with homosexual and transgender Americans demanding equal rights to marry, then by black Americans reacting to the police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and other places. Unfortunately, much of the discussion of the status of racial minorities has only added to the toxicity in our discourse by not recognizing prejudice–in this case racism–as a complex psychological and social phenomenon. The most basic and recognizable expression of prejudice is when one person dislikes another simply on the basis of a specific characteristic be it racial, ethnic, national, religious or gender, independent of whether the other person is the same in every other respect (i.e., socio-economic status, political and or religious affiliation, and so on).
More widespread is a form of prejudice that emerges from a context where one group believe themselves to be competing against or threatened by another group over a real or perceived set of limited resources. Skin color, nationality or religion is not itself the issue but becomes the way groups self-identify around their interests, and distinguish themselves from a competing ‘tribe’. When seen in this way, we can see how communities, where people who previous lived peacefully side by side, even intermarrying, as in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, could devolve to a point where people feel murder is a viable, if the only solution.
Much of the reason America, long the wealthiest nation on the planet, is unable to make more head way in tackling the social problems it has is because of prejudice. In order to make real headway, we need to alter this dynamic. Two groups who have long been targets of derision have been the advantaged and disadvantaged. Focusing first on the wealthy, we need to end the personal attacks, recognizing that their position of privilege is the flip side of those people who suffer great disadvantage; that is, it is not so much who one is or one’s personal attributes which are the reason for their position, but often the circumstances of birth and up-bringing. Then again, individuals could be rich and of upper class society but marginalized for being Jews, women or homosexual. Still, groups more recognized as marginalized are racial minorities, the poor and lower working class, who often times are one and the same.
It is the disadvantaged who need to be the focus of our efforts to move America forward, first in recognition that we are all in this together, but secondly for the different groups who compose America’s disadvantaged to see they share a bond of being marginalized in some way and if anyone’s situation is going to change for the better everyone’s situation needs to change for the better. While the disadvantaged need to see themselves as one group bonded by a set of interests and goals, at the same time the differences between each group’s histories and circumstances need to be recognized and respected. The best way to build common ground is for each group to tell the others their story and for those listening to appreciate that, while the particulars vary, everyone recognizes that they share the experience of being victimized initially by prejudice which then becomes systematized. By building community, people find a common cause, and with it a new set of opportunities for those who have been disadvantaged to move forward. When the disadvantaged are able to advance we all benefit.