How the Left Lost its Class (and a Conversation)

On Wednesday the 9th of November – a day that will surely live on forever in your memory as the death of your innocently insular newsfeed – I, like most university students hypnotised by the circus that is American politics, sat watching the college television with my hands glued to my face in complete shock. We couldn’t believe it. In our discussions with everyone who we knew we already agreed with about the person we already knew we all would’ve voted for, not once had we even considered the possibility of supporting that racist sexist scumbag.

How on earth had love not trumped Trump?

Was this a crusade against all the social progress we had made in the previous eight years?

Did America really hate Muslims that much?

Were we really not as open to women in positions of leadership as we might have first thought?

The clouds of pathetic fallacy had started to thunder and a confetti chorus of liberal tears roared down, celebrating an eventual end to the election season that, knowing most things in Canberra, was definitely ironic. Huddling around the dim and flickering light of our 2015 edition Macbooks and our 55-inch college plasma TV, in a sheltered vacuum 9000 miles from the events in America that precipitated this result, we found ourselves all asking the exact same question…

HOW DID HILLARY NOT WIN PROM QUEEN!?

She had seemingly said the all right things to the right people, worn a stunning yet modest prom outfit (a fun and funky colourful pantsuit with a professional edge), had endearingly exhibited meme worthy mannerisms and, a fact we all can’t deny, had rocked that big ‘fresh out of the salon’ hair that was just begging for a tiara.

After posting my “how dare they – democracy is dead!” status and aggressively pacing my dorm room for hours (I did IB, so don’t worry, I have the stamina), some fruits of my deliberation began to appear. Hillary had committed the second most common cardinal sin of every unsuccessful stupol campaign (#1 being harassing the kids you talked to twice in your tutorial with a billion vote-for-me Facebook messages). You can walk the walk, and talk the talk, but you can’t forget to hit the ground and work the crowd! And that means ALL OF IT HILLARY – a feat that should include handing out fliers near the Agriculture building and talking to those weird country kids (a surprisingly large voting bloc you’d be a fool to ignore). Euphorically riding this wave of my new realisation, I set out to ask a few of Hillary’s classmates  – the USA Class of 2016 – for their thoughts to see where she went wrong.

The dominant post-election media narrative has painted it as a vitriolic ‘whitelash’ against the current arc of American progress – a white-supremacist fuelled mob mentality that was democratically legitimising a violent vendetta of a privileged section of society against minorities and the environment, uncomfortable with the idea of diminishing social power.  The internet memes also tended to support this supposition (which usually means end of debate).

However, while yes the Republican base is predominantly made up of older white males, the bar charts and mock maps that had gone around were misleading as they provided a static snapshot and not a trend. As the post-election dust (or confetti if you will) began to settle, a strikingly different picture of an evolving party began to emerge.

According to NYT, Washington Post and Pew Research Centre Exit Polls, when compared to 2012 statistics the 2016 Republican voter base was:

  • Younger (+6 amongst 18-24 voters and -4 amongst >65 voters)
  • Less white (+7 change in Black and +8 change in Hispanic voters)
  • More male (+5 change in male and -1 change in female vote)
  • Less formally educated (+12 in voters without a college degree)
  • From a smaller town (+14 in voters from small/rural towns)
  • Lower income (+3 with an income of under $50,000 and -6 with over $100000 income voters)

This data flies in the face of the image of a dying out, white and wealthy Republican party grasping for power as it grows increasingly out of touch with modern day America. While some may attribute this to how widely appealing Obama was, the narrative that Trump founded his base amongst the socially regressive is ill-founded, as evidenced by his shocking victory in long-time democratic northern strongholds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (socially liberal states that had achieved marriage equality before the 2015 Supreme Court Ruling). Much of the media has mischaracterised the increasing political divide in America as a faceoff between a young diverse America and an old white America, but the polling data challenges this. The wedges separating Americans look to be more economic and urban/rural.

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52% of voters listed the economy as being the biggest issue facing the country and 39% were foremost seeking a candidate that could bring about ‘much needed change’. Of the voters that preferenced ‘having the right experience’ as the most important quality for a candidate, an overwhelming 83% voted for Trump as opposed to the 14% for Clinton. Of those who thought the country was ‘seriously off on the wrong track’, 69% voted for Trump.

With Trump’s record high unpopularity recorded as a net favourability of -21%, the picture of Trump being a messianic figure for jaded and racist Americans fades, and we start to see that his voters, people whose desperation for change overshadowed their disgust for his flaws, had unwillingly cast their votes for what felt like a last resort. Equipped with this new data and having no idea what to make of it, I reached out to my American friend Seth. Seth is a 22-year-old African-American college student and on November 8 he cast his vote for Donald J Trump. This is what he said:[one-half-first][/one-half-first][one-half][/one-half]

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fiveI had listened to the other side and, shockingly, it had begun to make sense.

We cannot afford to keep rallying around the flag with our hands over our ears. I similarly started to feel a similar sense of frustration as I began to see, through Seth’s lens, the videos of the NYC protests and posts on my newsfeed by inner-city liberals condemning the ‘deplorability’ they felt had gripped America. These people all blamed white supremacy, however, there didn’t seem to be anything supreme about the predicament of the average Trump supporter. Rural America is suffering from a social emergency, and has been for quite a while. There is record high unemployment, soaring levels of substance abuse and a mental health epidemic. A study conducted between 1996 and 2010 found that suicide rates of people between the ages of 10-24 in the country is double that of rates in the city, and rising.

America had suffered the democratic consequences of refusing to re-examine its assumptions of globalisation and perceptions of who that ‘progress’ actually impacts. Something eerily reminiscent of the UK’s Brexit referendum. Compare the pair:

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(figure 1: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2016/)

(figure 2: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/24/world/europe/how-britain-voted-brexit-referendum.html)

It is a privilege to be able to believe in a myth of unequivocal ‘progress’. The industrial mid-west has been economically gutted, as have the blue collar towns in regional England. Some of these countrymen have not seen their wages rise in a generation, many have simultaneously seen their quality of life decline, and most are frighteningly worried about the future for their children. They can no longer believe the lie they have been told: Globalisation is a good – a good for all. Just be patient.

When was the last time you heard about union busting, the heroin epidemic or the loss of manufacturing jobs to China? The rural working class put Trump in the White House. Why? Because behind all the outlandish sound bites, he was the only one who made it look like he’d genuinely listen. Clinton was an establishment politician, whose too little too late appeasement policies aimed at pandering to this desperate demographic came across as insincere and unbelievable. So, they decided to speak in the only way they felt they could be heard – by taking a chance and throwing a spanner into the works of an establishment that had afforded to ignored them for far too long. And as much as I didn’t believe it at first, the media and our inner city liberal echo chambers are equally responsible for blind sighting the issues that necessitated this outcry. Minimising this election to an Enlightened versus Disillusioned, Welcoming versus Spiteful, Angel verus Bigot, Environment Loving verus Climate Change Denying, Black versus White face-off serves as nothing but a mechanism to demonise those who we initially disagree with and ascribes a mudslinging aspect to our politics that detracts from meaningful engagement. Many Americans had, put simply, found uneasy solace in a man who, as the data suggests, they most likely hate as much as you do.

Fresh off the plane from our European winter breaks, we had sat at the lunch tables of our catered colleges playing oppression olympics and had proudly condemned the people who supported this man, conveniently forgetting that class and education are in fact the biggest determinants of opportunity and success. Had the Left hypocritically forgotten to check its own privilege? It takes a mighty lot of economic privilege to even sit where we were contemplating social privilege. Your post code more heavily influences your life expectancy than your gender. And of course that isn’t to say these issues are irrelevant or not in fact interlinked, but it does, however, call for us to put them into perspective.

Reducing our peers to the candidate they voted for ignorantly trivialises the many complex personal motivations that goes into such a decision. Our constant indulgence in ‘pin the tail on the racist’ has led to our widespread condemnation of Trump to correlate with a widespread dismissal of the very real and legitimate concerns of his voting base. Arrogance does not win us votes, and it was our self-righteousness that ultimately blindfolded our empathy. The rural working class cannot put our identity politics on the dinner table for their kids to eat. Combatting micro aggressions won’t pay their rent. And marriage equality won’t save their jobs. That is not to say our issues are not valid. Our issues are important. But so are theirs – and we maybe should allow space for them in our daily discourse so that our passions are not heard at the expense of more immediate concerns. If we choose to listen, we may begin to realize that their vote wasn’t necessarily a stand against ours.

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(McDowell County in West Virginia, the first recipient of the Executive Order food stamp program under JFK and still the poorest in the state. Source: NYT)

Devastatingly, the parties that pride themselves on being at the forefront, carrying the flag for the disenfranchised and advocating for the voiceless, have ironically left some of their fellow countrymen behind. Brothers who for some time had felt removed from their mainstream family discussions. We condemned their votes and their voices, assuming their situation was empowered enough for them to have access to a reasonable scope of choice. Our newsfeeds, dinner tables and televisions had become echo chambers, constantly validating what we already thought and not imploring us to exercise empathy or understanding. There had been no real conservative voice in our ears, but instead, an out of touch caricature that we just couldn’t let go of and inevitably reach past. And no, advocating for platform for a ‘conservative voice’ isn’t granting them a microphone through which they’ll call on everyone to electrocute the gays and ban the burqa – it is us pledging to listen and allowing them space to say ‘Hey, the droughts have hit our farmers tough, our blue collar jobs are evaporating and I’d feel more comfortable teaching my kids Sex Ed at home.’

I had caught myself preaching about the social consequences of collectivising vulnerable populations under racist umbrellas, yet had not foreseen the political consequences of collectivising the economically hard done by ruralites with the extreme fringes we had spotlighted, stereotyped and laughed at on late night talk shows.

When it is harder to come out as conservative than as gay at college, is it possibly time to check our inclusivity policy? How can we expect bipartisanship from our politicians when our future student leaders are proudly prancing around university wearing “Fuck Liberal Scum” t-shirts? When will our respect for a woman’s autonomy and right to choose extend from her body to her ballot? We have become so indignant in accusing others of stepping on the little man that we forgot to check what was under our own boots.

Trump’s upset was as much of a surprise as the Brexit vote. In both cases, the pollsters had gotten it wrong. Very wrong. The silent vote was huge. So what does that say about the state of our modern political discourse?

Can we now see how it seems a little ironic that the only engagement we had with Trump voters was a vehement lecture on privilege? How had we, university students who pride themselves on inclusivity and understanding, been so remarkably deaf when it came to listening to the economically displaced? The extent to which we had the audacity to so arrogantly proselytize these people is almost embarrassing. We were too occupied flexing our muscles and showcasing our latest pseudo-intellectual buzzwords and social theories, to even check if we had missed something, before we overlooked an entire class of people as racist, self-serving and ignorant. These people don’t have the same kind of education or formative experiences behind them as us, yet we so strongly declare that it ‘isn’t our job to teach them about feminism’. If we still strongly believe that there isn’t a duty to teach but instead a duty to listen and learn, then we must take it upon ourselves to learn and recognise the damaging implications of classism, especially in remote communities – something I, for one, have failed to do. Dismissing the result of the US election as the sadistic predations of a racist and privileged section of society uncomfortable with the idea of diminishing social power is dangerous, as it highlights the exact absence of empathy and understanding that is plaguing our political discourse.

The rural working class has been losing, and the Left’s failure to listen has them losing as well. Labour lost in the UK and the Democrats lost in the US.

Trump had crushed Clinton in a stunning electoral college victory. The people have spoken and it would be petulant and unwise to ignore what they’ve said. Idealism is inspiring, but a lack of pragmatism is crippling. When you miss your target you check your instruments and realign – not shout at it. As mic.com so excellently put it, few conversations that begin with “You’re racist” end constructively.

Sitting on the couch in front of the television that Wednesday night, spectating this election with a luxury of choice and treating it like a very poorly cast season of ‘The Bachelor’, the realisation that many in this election cast unwilling and desperate votes with the firm belief that they had no choice deeply upset me. To consider that a Muslim teenager, fearful of the violence hate groups would feel emboldened to commit in the case of a Trump Victory, and a struggling unemployed father, worried that his town’s opioid addiction might take grip of his kids, likely voted against one another is extremely uncomfortable. Both their plights are real and both their opposing votes were understandably qualified by necessity. Democracy shouldn’t have to be like this.

We share many common challenges. Our sides are not that separate, and often, many of the battles we are fighting overlap. There are gay folks sweating it out on our farms, just as there are workers who have copped the heat from globalisation marching in our refugee rallies. And despite the ideological differences we may or may not have, there is one thing we can unanimously agree on: our country cannot go forward without a conversation.

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(Is there a growing urban/rural divide here at home? How can we improve dialogue between these seemingly opposed sections of society?)