HomeCommentaryCommunication & Empathy Will Not Be Enough

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I’ve watched progressives redouble their commitments to “communication.”  Prodded on by journalist, social scientists, and various pundits analyzing Trump’s surprise capture of the formerly solid-blue working-class voters of the upper Midwest, they have organized local, state, and national efforts to “bridge the gap,” seeking to listen carefully to and understand the angry constituency that forsook them. A good representative of this collection is The Reunited States Project which seeks to “connect rather than divide Americans…to build trust and encourage the respectful and thoughtful dialogue…[and] showcase organizations and individual thought leaders who embody the principle of E pluribus unum….”

Rational, progressive Americans commit themselves to empathy and fairness, so one can only applaud the intent of these groups.  But there is a major problem with their plans: The right-half of the American political landscape does not want the empathy of folks on the left and therefore has little interest in conversing with them.  Perhaps more importantly, the Republican voters that might take the time to talk with progressives have little power to change the direction of the American populist movement storming Washington right now.  “Cross-aisle” conversations will be important going forward, but for some other purpose than communication in the abstract.

Intuitively, most Trump voters have little motivation to discuss policy with progressives because at this moment they feel that they have won the war. The left holds so little power at both the federal and state levels that conservatives, evangelicals, and free-market advocates can safely disregard the wishes of left-leaning citizens.  This mindset intensified but did not originate with the Trump victory. What we see now is only the fruiting body of an organic rift growing for decades within the American populace. Take for instance the observations cited in Robert Leonard’s Why Rural America Voted for Trump as he described the working class citizens of his small-town home, Knoxville, Iowa:

They pushed away from the table, and one said: “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep in.” The other nodded.

“Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong….”

…Blue counties are along waterways, where early river transportation encouraged the formation of cities, and surround state capitals. This is also where most investment in infrastructure and services is made. Rural Americans recognize that this is how it must be, as the cities are where most of the people are, yet it’s a sore spot.

Leonard’s article strongly portrays how heartland voters have demonized the city-dwelling “elitists,” leaving them disinclined try on another world view, even for the moment it takes to have a meaningful conversation with someone from the other tribe.

Further stacking the odds against meaningful conversation is the right-of-center news media that reinforces daily this disregard of “liberal” concerns.  To take only the most obvious, Fox News is the network appearing on the television screens in the motels, diners, and waiting rooms across the length of the nation.  Fox denies that it is a mouthpiece for the Republican party, but it is the only major network where the newsrooregularly receives content direction from the executive offices.  During the 2016 campaign, Sean Hannity took a daily dial-in call from Trump and let the candidate speak freely, making no attempt to be “fair and balanced” to his opponent or to fact check the assertions he made.  Amplifying these sentiments, the increasingly abundant alt-right press supports G.O.P. candiates avidly.  Though social media has the potential of providing less biased information, studies of the recent election shows that web users employed online news services to bolster rather than balance out the political convictions they develope elsewhere.

Even if the left could have a meaningful dialog with the Republican rank and file, the local arena is not where the decisions steering this country are being made.  The disaffected voters of the Midwest broke with the Democrats over free-trade’s impact on manufacturing jobs.  But as the new government takes power, Republican-controlled house is focusing instead upon scaling back entitlement programs.  Trump’s proposed tax cuts overwhelmingly favor the rich, not the angry members of the working class who elected him.  In the face of such an egregious bait-and-switch deception, the left’s efforts to communicate more sensitively with the populist in their communities begin to look otiose.

One comment posted to an interview of Mark Gerzon, author of “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge The Partisan Divide,” expresses the real-politic view of the 2016 election quite well:

[The interview] propagated a myth about the current political divide…that both sides are equally responsible for the current situation…. [The current divide goes] back to the Powell Memo and more recently it was kicked into high gear by Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, et al. [The 1% has] waged a war on liberals, calling out anyone who isn’t conservative and Christian as not really American. The greater agenda has been to repeal the New Deal and bring us back to the Gilded Age…. A decades long barrage of propaganda [has been] designed to pit us against each [other] and to inspire distrust and hatred of the government because the 1% know that the only institution that can counter unregulated capitalism and the power of corporations and wealth is a united populace using the government and its regulation to keep them in check.

I cite the articles above not to disparage the progressive’s desire for communication between left and right. Indeed, we should seek out such opportunities, because dialog is an integral component to a healthy democracy. But those who are reeling from our nation’s hard turn to the right should look beyond simple conversation if they want to straighten the ship of state.  Given the intransigence of the populists now that they are in power, the grievous divide between right and left will ease only when two things occur: a] The left changes, re-centering its attention upon issues that matter to the voters represented by the majority of the electoral college, and b] its partisans commit themselves to campaigning effectively on those issues rather than another set of perhaps loftier goals.  By all means, the left should get in touch with the right, but they should utilize those communications not just to help everyone feel better, but to achieve these two goals.

That the left needs to evolve is beginning to sink in.  In the 2016 election, the Democratic candidate overlooked her own husband’s admonition that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Throughout the primaries and the general election, pundits on both side of the partisan divide observed that Clinton was banking on demographics and identity politics rather than speaking to the pocketbook issues of the working-class voters who eventually abandoned her.   As the Democrats regroup, they do not need to listen to every Trump voter they can find.  Hearing the complaints of just those who used to vote left-of-center will suffice—as long as the party modulates those concerns into a set of policies compelling enough to win those voters back.  Testing the effectiveness of the new message will be straightforward: now-red counties in the suburbs and exurbs in the battleground states will turn blue again during the next mid-election.

As for campaigning effectively, consider the fact that mainstream politicians typically shy away from discussing “class warfare” for decades now, sensing that the message is inappropriate for an America dedicated to equal opportunity rather than equal outcome.  Times have changed, and the concentration of wealth has not only matched the Gilded Age (which immediately gave way to the golden age of Progressivism), but has been demonstrated to be undermining the consumer demand that our economy depends upon.

Trump railed against free-trade and cozied up to the Russians, breaking many of the taboos of his party. Democrats may want to try a little iconoclasm themselves.  Given the dismal state of the party, how much would they really risk if they invested the next two years in re-formulating class warfare so that it plays well with working class Americans in the 21st century?  With a billionaire in the white house, the CEO of Exxon running the state department, and the Republican leadership scrapping Medicare and Social Security in order to provide tax cuts that accrue overwhelmingly to the rich, compelling examples of actual class warfare perpetrated by the right will be easy to come by. That voters can warmly receive such a message when properly package is clearly evidenced by the enthusiastic reception Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren received, especially by the millennial voters, half of whom sat out this past election.

Yes, we should applaud the desire to “get in touch and understand” the Trump voters, but we can also hope that the left will view it as a means to an end.  With global warming, a new nuclear arms race, and continuing disruption from automation in the economy pressing hard upon us, this country needs a strong voice warning against simple-minded solutions to complex problems.  Job 1 for the Democrats, then, is indeed to listen to the voters they lost, long enough to discover how to repackage notions such as “government,” “meritocracy,” and “long-term effectiveness” into policy initiatives palatable to those currently swayed by demagoguery.  However, close on its heals must be Job 1A: to use that knowledge and pivot into action.  The agenda must be to reveal where the working class’ true interest lie and market that mindset enthusiastically.  When the two lads from Knoxville say instead “Let’s go vote for the rational candidate, so that the government can get back to work,” the conversation between left and right will have amounted to something.

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