I don’t need to ask what happened. There’s plenty of that on the way, plenty of hair-tearing, plenty of finger-pointing, plenty of doomsaying. This is America after all, and, as we’ve just seen, there’s nothing America likes more than a very deep and very dark howl.
You’re right to be shaking in your boots. But before we go tossing fistfuls of our fellow citizens off the moral balcony, please: nostra culpa. Because I think that the real truth is that we on the Democratic side of the aisle are as much to blame for this. We got it completely wrong–every last one of us who believed that our view of America was indistinguishable from America itself.
White people voted, and they voted for Trump. There is a simple reason for why that determined the outcome of the election: the majority of America is white. Yes, that might surprise you to hear; we’ve been treated to several years of bombastic predictions that America had surpassed its distortionary homogeneity and was on an inevitable march towards a glorious non-white future. White people were already supposed to be irrelevant—white men especially. That was just the long arc of history, baby.
Well, how did that turn out?
It’s true that in several decades, America will be a different place. That’s a nicely tautological prediction, but that’s all it is. America today is America today. And we who supported Hillary did not know America today.
Take this simple scenario: you live in West Virginia. You are a high school graduate, or maybe not that. You live in a state that is in near-interminable dereliction. Hillary Clinton is the rational decision, says the commentariat. She is an elder stateswoman, veteran of the Senate and the State Department; if you could go there, she’s been, and if you could do that, she has. Be reasonable and pick her.
Now ask yourself: what does it mean to vote rationally in West Virginia? People come in and out of 1600 Penn; the drapes change, chairs are bought and thrown out, they get Netflix in the cinema. What changes in Charleston? A bank closes? A pawn shop opens?
Did you even know that Charleston was the capital of West Virginia?
Voting rationally is voting for New York. It is voting for San Francisco, for Boston, for Chicago. Voting rationally means voting for a comfortable consensus, in which a small class of professionals recycle themselves and their children through an equally small network of educational institutions, finance, media, and technology companies, charitable foundations, and government departments. That network has got both coasts covered, and a bit of the upper midwest. It does not have time for West Virginia or for Iowa or for Kansas. Take your pick of red states from last night, and I guarantee that the same thing will hold true. America is seeing red because that network does not include it.
Now it is obvious that Donald Trump doesn’t either. But the right wing has never done that. The point of leftism, or of its weaker but more acceptably American cousin progressivism, is that it was supposed to. It was supposed to care about the unglamorousness of poverty, because that is why poverty is so unacceptable. Poverty is not sexy. It is not fun. There are no outdoor concerts or gorgeous celebrities to wax triumphalist about conquering it. It is a hard slog to fix, and the results are always imperfect. And worse, there are countless numbers of people along the way who will fight tooth and nail to make sure that it never goes away.
It is a hard road, but it is the only one. If we don’t know that now, we never will. If you want to fix American politics, you have to fix American lives. And that means lives that are as average as they come, the ones that belong to people who will never get a parade, who will never cut a tasteful nude for a glossy civic advocacy campaign. I know it will rankle your prim liberal instincts for me to say it, but that means talking directly to the white working- and lower-middle classes. Because they are the largest group in America, and so they are the political heavyweight-and they will be that for a long enough time to do some serious damage. And you know what? It’s also the right thing to do. Because however much we enjoy laughing at them in our roadtrip Instagrams–at their weird signs, their titanic churches, their triple-deep-fried bacon burgers–their lives are, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty awful.
But, you say, they’re racists, they’re sexists, they’re homophobes. They’re just horrible people who can’t be reasoned with. They’re just fucking white people. If that’s your perspective, then be prepared to live in Trump’s America for a long, long time. Do you think this is a problem with being white? Are you white? If you are, are you a racist, a bigot, a homophobe? No? So what’s different? I’ve got a few hints for you, if you’re struggling to answer that. Take a look at where the house you grew up in was. Take a look at where your schools were. What kind of letters came after your dad’s name? What was your mother’s job? Did she even have one?
Why do some white people vote for hate and some don’t? It’s a tough question, but I’m willing to bet–and history has hopefully taught us this if nothing else–that there are better answers than the color of their skin.
Really, though: ask yourself if you’re ready to write off hundreds of millions of people just like that. Are you actually ready to dismiss reconciling them as an integral part of a rational and reasonable American politics? Are you willing to live in a world where that many people have to be relegated to the ranks of the insane, rather than one in which people make crude connections between feelings and circumstances, neither of which they fully understand?
How many of you have been to therapy to close exactly that gap?
The truth is that you who are reading this have almost certainly lived a life whose privilege was the greatest of them all: people cared. They cared about you. They still care about you. They expend untold amounts of effort making sure that you feel good, that you get what you want. Can’t you spare a little bit of circumspection for those who have never, and will never, have that? Can’t you use your lofty vantage point to look past their rhetoric to the problems that drive it, and all of your economic and educational power to actually do something for them?
I’ll put it this way: you cannot end inequality in America without changing those lives. You might not like that. You might detest it, in fact, and I wouldn’t blame you. The rhetoric of the right is revolting. White working-class voters do themselves no favors by speaking and acting so outrageously. But the right thing to do isn’t always one that makes you feel good for doing it. Not all victims need be heroes.
You can make your cities as sexually permissive as you want. You can banish gender from your bathrooms. You can ensure that your office is a picture perfect Benetton ad (also ensuring that everyone in it is economically homogenous–it’d be uncomfortable to work with them if they didn’t share your references, after all). And you can pat yourself on the back with a ceaseless stream of self-promoting videos that celebrate every last little bit of you. You can do that. But the cost of your satisfaction–if that sort of praise can ever really bring you that–is ceding our political ground to the tens of millions of people who are implicitly denied your access, all because they didn’t turn out to be exactly like you. Because you know what? They vote. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen that, however shocked the national conscience is every time they do. It’s simple economics, people. Scarcity is value. How powerful must that one day in four years be when you don’t exist the other 1459?