Trumped Up

I’m going to assume for the purposes of this essay that Clinton will win the election tomorrow. If Trump wins, a very different kind of political future stretches ahead, both for his supporters and his opponents.

So, if Clinton wins, what then? Many progressives promise to pressure her relentlessly, and they should do so. President Obama demonstrated in his last two years in office that there are many useful initiatives possible with executive authority alone. He also demonstrated in his first six years that there are many ways to squander executive power, as he did at Treasury and Education. Pressure on Clinton from the faction of her party that wants to see many things changed in our national policies can encourage creative use of executive power and discourage simply handing it to the usual suspects to craft the sort of rudderless, bloodless wonkery that only Ezra Klein could love.

It is nearly impossible to guess what kind of legislature she will be grappling with. That’s not merely about the distribution of seats to parties, but also about whether the Republican leadership will see Congressional leadership as an important part of climbing out of the abyss that Trump led them into. If they decide to stubbornly stay in the pit and wait for the next monster to escort them around its darkness, then Clinton will need a strategy that presumes nothing will come from Congress. If Paul Ryan and others recognize that to climb out takes delivering something more than endless, purposeless obstruction, then she may be able to rely on some form of legislative cooperation on big, likely rather formless, legislation to shift economic policy.

I don’t have much hope about a Clinton Administration, by and large. It’s not a Trump Administration, and that’s important enough. But 2020 and 2024 may deliver something like a Trump Administration if things don’t change. I still read far too many progressives in my social media feeds who see Trump’s coalition as a demographic cul-de-sac, as something which can get no larger. Trump is not teleology; Trump is contingency. He is an episode that did not have to happen, and he is an event that has changed the shape of the future. That alone is cause for the deepest fury with the Republican leadership of the last twenty years: they gleefully cast matches onto dry underbrush and then were surprised when they set the entire neighborhood ablaze.

Trump’s voters are a renewable resource, and it might only take someone other than Trump to grow them into something far more. Imagine Trump without grab-them-by-the-pussy, without unhinged tweeting, without dubious financial scumbuggery. Imagine a fire-breather without the liabilities who stayed laser-focused on a kind of populist nihilism, a tear-it-all-down attitude, coupled with a smarter, more circumspect nativism that kept away from indiscriminate racism. General disaffection with the system is real and widespread; against a career member of the political class, that revised Trump could win. Would have won this time, very likely.

So if nothing else for reasons of self-interest, the political class, of all parties, would be well-advised to build some reformist firebreaks urgently. They likely won’t. So let’s leave that for a moment and ask what the rest of us might do in their stead. Perhaps tearing down much of the existing system would or could be beneficial depending on who is doing the demolition and the reconstruction, and with what aims. We’re not getting to the good version, a new birth of American freedom, without a very different kind of social support for that transformation than is presently available.

I have been persistently frustrated with progressives who misunderstand, with varying degrees of egregiousness, two key issues. First with persistent attempts to use one fragmentary bit of data, namely 538’s claim that exit polls of Trump voters in the primaries showed that they had a higher median income than Democratic primary voters and higher than their state as a whole, to argue that Trump’s support is not “working-class”. First because at least some of the people who have seized on that point should know just how weak that data is for making any assertion about the social identities of a group of voters. Second because just about everyone should know better than to see income and social class as equivalent, and to reductively assume there’s a working-class, a middle-class, and the wealthy, end of story. Two households with an income of $72,000 can be massively different in class terms. The household where the income is $72,000 in a small city in Ohio with one 55-year old earner who has a B.A., works as a sales manager in an auto dealership and does part-time weekend work at Wal-Mart and is in a house with no resale value is almost incomparable with the household of a 35-year old biology Ph.D who has just been hired at a California liberal arts college on the tenure-track and is renting an apartment from his employer. They’re both “middle-class” in some broad sense, but the relationship of the two people to the political economy is hugely different, and their pathways into the future are equally divergent. The first person has a ton of reasons to worry–or feel anger–about the direction of the economy in comparison to the second person. (Not that anyone except the 1% can afford to regard the future as a sure thing.)

This is what we the people, at least the coalition of people voting for Clinton, will have to understand even if our political class, including probable-President Clinton, cannot. We will have to understand it through evidence and social connection. Progressives should not ever engage in sorting people into the deserving and undeserving, to decide whose precarity is authentic enough. Left politics depends on at least the appearance of an interest in fighting for workers, hence to desperation of some to cleanse the category of Trump voters so that it’s safe to disparage them as nothing but racists.

Mind you, many of them are just that. But never “nothing but”: to be precarious members of a lower middle-class that has genuinely suffered relative decline in the structural transformations of the global and national economy in the last thirty years is not in any sense incompatible with being racists, with sexism, and so on. Which is where the second issue that frustrates me comes up. There have been a number of essays published in the last month by progressive authors who say, “Don’t ask me to have empathy for Trump voters”. This misunderstands what it means to understand. The reason to think about and engage Trump voters is not saintly altruism. It is pure, desperate pragmatism.

The social and cultural distance between me and most Trump voters is vast. I don’t even have a member of my extended family that I know might vote for Trump. I only come across clusters of Trump voters in my social media feeds on occasion. I am frightened by most vocal Trump voters, and I’m repelled by a lot of what they support. The racism and sexism are only the first part of it. I’m disgusted with their indifference to truth and evidence. I’m dizzy with rage at their mockery of qualifications. I can’t believe they care so little about the consequences of a Trump Administration for the world or the country.

I have no sainthood to uphold, just a lot of bleak feelings of despair, anger and alienation about the entirety of where we find ourselves. I do have a religion that is just as sacred to me as anyone’s might be to them: I believe in evidence, I believe in knowledge, I believe in the elegance and beauty of words, I believe in fairness and equality, I believe in the possibilities of social justice. Trump is the Piss Christ of my religion: a sacrilege that enrages and sickens me.

And yet that is why I know pragmatically that this cannot go on. It doesn’t matter if the Trump coalition loses every four years by 10 or 15 electoral votes, by 45-55 in the popular vote. Especially not if they continue to hold many state legislatures and the House of Representatives. That’s enough to hold the future hostage, to drag us all down, and to make the neoliberal trend lines of the economy even worse for more and more people, potentially accelerating the move of other voters into a Trump-like space of nihilism and rejection. Something has got to change, and we cannot change it just with a basket of admirables.

We have to have justice even for people we dislike, even for people who threaten others. That’s the price of peace. Every society that’s gone through something like a civil war learns this in the end. Progressives like to point out that you cannot kill all the terrorists, because trying to do so makes more terrorists. This is what happens with all strategies of infinite enmity, of holding power as a shield and weapon against enemies, in the end. This ensures the social reproduction of enmity itself.

So the first thing that we can do with our civic lives, even if the President and Congress drag their feet making the really big changes in their management of the economy, is to try and poke holes in the coffee can, to let some air in, to change the circulation of meritocratic privilege and economic access even more than it has been changed so far. To figure out who is with Trump only because of one issue or one experience, who could move.

Where we can build a bridge to that someone, we should. Where we can stand to be in conversation, we should. Trying to understand people never depends on whether they’re assholes or not. It’s not empathy because you’re a good person. As a historian and ethnographer, I’ve often had to understand people that I personally or politically dislike very much, without any implications for my own likeability or goodsness. I shouldn’t undertake that effort just when it’s a Shona-speaking rural patriarch that I’m speaking to. Not because I’m a saint, not because I have to have “empathy” for some fuzzy reason, but because I have the skill to do it and because if I use that skill I gain productive knowledge about the world, how it came to be, and what it might mean to change it.

Equally, we have to start figuring out what we might offer as a new social contract between communities with very different visions of the future. If I were in a conversation today where I thought there was a fair, genuine offer on the table to allow a rural school in a region where 95% of the students identified as evangelicals to have a school prayer in the morning in return for acceptance without complaint of non-gender-specific bathrooms in schools throughout that state, I might advise acceptance of the deal. Maybe we need strategic arms limitation talks in the culture wars, maybe we need to refocus the conversation on what kinds of essential baseline universal rights need strong defense by the federal government and which kinds of rights-talk can be allowed some form of local devolution. I’d settle for a strong federal intervention in the rules of engagement by police all across this country to stop the deaths of African-Americans if that meant a studied indifference among coastal elites about people flying the Confederate flag over a state legislature. Now, none of this is worth talking about until it’s a real negotiation, with real concessions being made. Again, though, safety and peace don’t come just through holding power long enough to win forever. There is no end to history. We won’t know what’s possible unless we spend the time figuring out what at least some of our enemies really want.

Not all of Trump’s voters need to be brought back into some larger possible coalition. But we need a bigger tent, a bigger alliance, a broader consensus on the absolute fundamentals of American and global life. We need something less fragile, less perpetually imperiled, and we will not get it just by endless war. We will not get it through some magic demography that we believe has anointed us the majority of the future. We will not get it by holding fast to every single thing we are, we want, we do.

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13 Responses to Trumped Up

  1. Stephen Frug says:

    “Not all of Trump’s voters need to be brought back into some larger possible coalition. But we need a bigger tent, a bigger alliance, a broader consensus on the absolute fundamentals of American and global life….”

    One hopeful thing is that I actually think HRC agrees with you about this. The point of her “basket of deplorables” remark, much missed, was that half of Trump voters are NOT just racists, sexists, etc, that they have real concerns and real losses, and that they must be helped and reached out to.

  2. “The social and cultural distance between me and most Trump voters is vast. I don’t even have a member of my extended family that I know might vote for Trump.”

    How do you plan to bridge this distance? Because as long as you don’t, you are part of the problem and will never really understand and will only go by stereotypes, suppositions.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is where on one hand creative thinking is required. Progressives are quick to scorn community meetings that they think have the wrong framing (usually from afar–if folks are local they often join right in)–say community-police picnics. What maybe we need is many more of those kinds of events, or to be present more often at those which exist. On the other hand, at least some folks on the left have actual skills (either from experience or training) that they’ve used to bridge other kinds of distances. If I can sit and patiently listen to a chief and his elders talk about their history without arguing with them constantly (even when I might, say, in how they describe the experience of women in their chiefship) I can do that anywhere–and if I can do that, I can begin to become more human and knowable in those conversations to others.

  4. You are on the right track, but you have to keep going. Deciding to have community meetings is one thing, actually producing a plan for making changes is another—and actually making those changes is the biggest thing of all. In designing systems it is a waste of time to get the system users together to talk about problems. Somebody has to take charge and he has to provide a point of departure. He has to propose a new system to solve all of the problems he can think of. When that happens the other users can react. Some will complain about the weaknesses and omissions of the proposed plan—but criticism of that sort is essential to developing workable solutions. The more complainers, the better.

    As part of providing the point of departure, the system designer will have to answer four essential questions: “Where do we stand? How did we get here? Where do we want to go? How do we get there from here?” For each answer the other users must provide their own views, and they must be reminded every time they get off track that we are gathered together to solve problems.

    We, the people, through government, religion, education, economics, business, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, must urgently respond to the onrushing catastrophe of global warming. In short, we must adapt or die. Each nation would have a different set of answers depending on their unique situation, but, in general, we all have the same problems.

    Where do we stand?

    We stand in a world where the survival of our civilization, even the survival of our species, is in doubt. Scientists who are experts in the various aspects of climate change and extreme weather due to global warming, are virtually unanimous: we must do something now to stop the burning of fossil fuels. We are committing suicide.

    How did we get here?

    We got here because evolution by natural selection gave our ancestral species ever larger, ever more complex brains that they, and finally we, used to make billions of rational decisions that permitted us to survive and thrive. We used our intellects to build a great civilization with many technological and scientific marvels. But our powerful brains are of no value unless we use them to rationally decide questions that can affect our chances of survival. In the last two centuries or so, we human beings have ignored our intellectual tools, and indulged our selfish, unthinking urges. We have been childish. We have acted irresponsibly. We assumed that Nature would absorb all our excesses. But we were wrong, and when scientists began to warn us that we were damaging our planet, we ignored them. And as the problem worsened, those who had the power and responsibility to take bold action to save us from ourselves failed to do their duty. Some selfishly wanted to protect their income, others rejected the warnings based on their “common sense,” still others rejected action based on ignorance (some of it self-imposed), and those who took the warnings seriously lacked the courage or the power to force confrontations that could have led to prudent action.

    Where do we want to go?

    We want to move to a world that does not burn fossil fuels. We want to do all the things necessary to stop the warming of our planet, and we want to establish international systems that will preserve and protect us. Earth is the only planet we have.

    How do we get there from here?

    In America’s case we must replace our Madisonian republic with faction-free democracy and replace tyranno-capitalism with democrato-capitalism. We must strengthen the wall between church and state, we must remove ideology from education, and we must change our business structure to one that is driven by demand. All institutions, all over the world, must adapt the intellectual process that was used by the ancient Athenians as they moved from monarchy to democracy. We must rely on evolution by intellection. We must apply our intellects in rational, benevolent, and forward-looking ways. We must think our way forward.

    The system designer should show the defects of our current systems and propose changes. If there is another system that we can use to replace our current system then we should do it immediately. If there is no such system then we should look for ideas in other systems that can be adapted into ours. In some cases we will have to make something out of nothing but an idea. Fortunately, there is a system that is rich with good ideas, and we are free to adapt the best of them and omit the rest. Here is where things are likely to go off the rails. This other, ancestral system is the democracy of ancient Athens. All hell will break loose, while many people who know nothing about Athenian government will say that the democracy of ancient Athens was a failure because it treated women like second class citizens and it allowed slavery. Full stop. The system designer will attempt to teach these ill-educated people about the seven superior ideas of Athenian democracy but he will get nowhere. And there it rests. The failure of our species to teach our children about the history of our species, will destroy our species.

    Others will come up with their own ideas, but they too will strike a stump. We Americans do not want to solve problems, we simply want to bitch about them, and blame others for them. We are very likely to choke on our self-imposed ignorance. The US Senator from Oklahoma, who stood on the floor of the Senate and held a snowball in his hand as an absolute proof that global warming is a fraud, is the perfect product of what now passes for the American Way.

    Unlike the Athenians, we Americans do not engage in “sustained, cooperative, and rational acts.” We engage in the ancient Darwinian struggle. In what passes for our national conversations, we rarely think, and we never have a discussion. Instead of rational analysis that leads to constructive, nonpartisan action, we prefer going straight to destructive, partisan, irrational, emotional reaction. Instead of thought and debate, we “feel,” we quarrel, we insult, we call names, we lie—we grapple, grasp, grimace, grunt, grab, and growl—we gnash and gnaw, we shoot from the lip. And the idea of cooperation is insulting to us. Our culture demands that the winner take all, that to the victor go the spoils, winning is the only thing, only the fittest will survive, only the deserving prosper, the undeserving do not, money is the most important thing, the race is to the swift, the battle to the strong, my faith above all others, when the going gets tough the tough get going, my dad can whip your dad, your mother wears combat boots. Oh yeah? Yeah!

    And, all the while, greenhouse gases pile up in our atmosphere.

  5. Joseph McGinlock says:

    “If I were in a conversation today where I thought there was a fair, genuine offer on the table to allow a rural school in a region where 95% of the students identified as evangelicals to have a school prayer in the morning in return for acceptance without complaint of non-gender-specific bathrooms in schools throughout that state, I might advise acceptance of the deal. Maybe we need strategic arms limitation talks in the culture wars, maybe we need to refocus the conversation on what kinds of essential baseline universal rights need strong defense by the federal government and which kinds of rights-talk can be allowed some form of local devolution. I’d settle for a strong federal intervention in the rules of engagement by police all across this country to stop the deaths of African-Americans if that meant a studied indifference among coastal elites about people flying the Confederate flag over a state legislature. ”

    Who exactly are you to making the terms of these negotiations?

    First off, voluntary school prayer is NOT illegal in public schools, nor has it ever been. If school administrators are not allowing, they most likely doing it out of irrational fear created by Christian activists.

    Regarding the confederate flag, are you fucking kidding me? Police brutality against African American shas been ongoing for over a century. Even with all the media attention, not a damn thing has been done. The movement to take down the Confederate Flag ONLY got mainstream appeal after a lunatic massacred nine black people in a church. It was a concession prize. To take that away, just….


  6. Timothy Burke says:

    So I’m trying to think about how to approach this, Joseph. The basic idea is this: if there was a way to devolve some forms of authority over cultural, expressive, community practices while insisting on a strong federal and national role in maintaining universal rights that was different than our present mix, and it produced some measure of peace or satisfaction–that communities that want to imagine themselves as strongly conservative felt more secure in that imagination–does that idea have any appeal?

    I think if our political imaginations are maximalist–we want to win everything that we want in all the struggles and situations we’re in–we will always mobilize a maximalist resistance. But as your reaction indicates, it’s not for me (or any individual) to decide what if anything we could forego, not the least because I don’t live in a community that is likely to insist strenuously on adhering to a conservative ethos. I don’t know how to have a conversation about what the content of a new social contract might look like without that feeling presumptuous, but I do feel that somehow that might be a conversation worth having. To find out that if we asked white social conservatives, “What’s the price of sociocultural peace? When will you feel secure, and agree to leave the new pluralist majority confirmed in its views, values and objectives?” If the answer is just “we want everything that’s changed undone, and we want to be in charge again”, then ok, peace talks are over. If the answer is, “School prayer, restrictions on abortion in our towns, etc.” and that list is short and parsimonious enough, I dunno, there might be something to it.

  7. Here is where one of the superior ideas of Athenian Democracy will come into play.I call it the Ideas System.

    The Ideas System is the modern analogue of the Assembly of ancient Athens as Socrates described it. This is the place that James Madison would have hated—this is the place where real democracy does its work. This is the place where everybody is free to have a say. This is the place where a citizen’s ideas will stand on their own merit no matter if the citizen is or is not “good-looking, and rich, and noble.” This is the place where all citizens, acting as individuals or in groups, can propose ideas for the consideration of others. This is the place where all citizens can evaluate the ideas of others and vote their opinions. This is the place where the cumulative value of a citizen’s ideas will establish her everlasting civic reputation. This is the place where evolution by intellection is practiced—where we the people will carry out the process of making something out of nothing but an idea. This is the place where we will face the facts. This is the place where we the people will engage in sustained, cooperative, and rational acts, where we will make our own plans, be our own guides, and be our own friends. This is the place where we will join our hands, hearts, and brains and do many mighty things. This is the place where the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence will finally be made real. This is the place.

    The technology needed to support the Ideas System is well established. On the Internet one can find countless versions of such a system. They cover many categories of ideas and they share many structural and operational characteristics. They are usually referred to as websites or blogs. Some are very interactive and some just present the views of the system owners. Systems that deal with political ideas tend to split along tyranno and democrato lines. The owners of the systems tend to self-describe using many of the categories that make up our current political nomenclature. A great many of these systems do not welcome dissenting points of view and they usually have methods for detecting and banning people who do not share the ideology of the host—these dissenters are frequently called “trolls,” and the interactions between troll and non-troll can be personal and very nasty. In our Ideas System we will expect that all ideas can be freely expressed. Freedom of speech will be the rule of the day, every day, all day.
    One such Internet system that has been very successful for several years I will call “BlogX.” It is self-described as a progressive or a democratic site, and troll vs. non-troll shouting matches are frequently seen. But overall BlogX is filled with earnest people trying to solve problems. I have followed many such sites for several years, and I have watched both sides of the political spectrum. Essentially, the structure of these systems is the same though some are more sophisticated, more feature-rich, and more robust than others—BlogX is one of the most advanced systems and could serve as a way to get some insight into the ultimate Ideas System. In July of 2014, the site reportedly received a daily average of 591,168 visits from 190,000 different persons, and with 1,262,365 page accesses. The processing power of BlogX is limited by the income of the site, but the response times are usually very good. Our Ideas System would have government funding and would be able to carry all of the traffic at no direct costs to the users. The structure and capabilities of this site would serve as an excellent point of departure when we begin to design the systems for our democracy. There are many such sites with their own followers and their own approaches which, taken together, provide ample evidence that the technology we need is proven, powerful, and readily available.
    The backbone of BlogX is the diary, which any registered user can submit for the consideration of others. The author of the diary is free to propose any idea she wishes. The diary follows an easy-to-use template with good editing to catch mistakes. Even if one has never used the system before, one should be able to compose a diary very quick-ly. The diary is then posted for all other users to read and to offer their comments and related ideas. In addition each user can, if she wishes, recommend that any diary be read by others. The recommendations are counted and those with the largest totals float to the top of a list. Thus one can easily see what most people are interested in. In our Ideas System, the diary would become the Idea, and we would have several categories of user recommendations. But the principle remains the same.
    I have visited this site for several years, and its greatest weakness, and the greatest weakness of almost all of these sites, is user anonymity. This leads to bitter, insult-laced arguments which are a complete waste of time except for one thing—such blood-letting brings people back again and again and eyeballs translate to income. On the other hand, the site has many good features. For example it is an excellent place to get news from around the world, especially from around the nation. Usually the reporters are people who take an interest in local community affairs. These people naturally emphasize points that reflect their own political inclinations, but they almost always provide links to local news outlets that will enable any user to draw her own conclusions about any local issue. Many of these efforts put major network and cable news programs to shame. Though the site does not provide any mechanism for translating an idea into government policy it is full of ideas from many sources that would fit into such a process.

    One of the most frustrating parts of reading the diaries on BlogX is becoming aware of the immense amount of time and energy taken up in challenging the comments of politicians as they appear before the public. The people who make these challenges do so because that is the way our system is supposed to work—one side makes an assertion, the other side challenges it, and the citizen makes up her mind and votes her opinion, thereby producing change for the better. But of course, our political system does not really work that way and BlogX, with its documented history of diaries and news stories, provides a steady stream of evidence that our system is a failure. The gap be-tween the ordinary citizen and our politicians is huge and cannot be closed by the tools the Framers gave us. In other words, the discussions on BlogX, and other systems like it, are largely spent debating personalities rather than issues and ideas. Because our faction-free democracy will not have a permanent staff of elected officials we will be able to get beyond personality. Together we will be able to ponder important ideas with purpose and objectivity. We will think our way forward.
    The Ideas System serves as the gateway to the Legislative System, the Rights System, the Hypothesis Evaluation System, and all the rest. Citizens are free to discuss ideas for any and all systems.

  8. Jane says:

    I do not believe that Trump’s coalition is interested in negotiation. Certainly, their elected representatives scorn it.

    As for the progressive coalition: who can have the authority to negotiate away someone’s rights? You are happy to surrender on the flag of slavery, but how do we get the consent of those affected to abandon their claim to justice?

  9. Alice says:

    Count me with Ezra – I too love bloodless wonkery. I was more excited for Clinton and Gore than for Obama. And I went to Swarthmore, so I (lovingly) blame you and yours for that.

    I mean Tim, I feel like your proposal on prayer, bathrooms, and the flag of a piece with your twitter suggestion that we stop complaining about variant comic book covers.

    Yes, I agree that prioritizing issues is an important first step in negotiations. But progressive demands are maximalist for a lot of reasons, right? (A) it’s coalition maintenance – if we’re going to trade school prayer for trans bathrooms how do we know we’re going to keep Jews and Muslims and atheists and Jains and Pagans and so on in our coalition? and (B) The way that the supreme court handles civil rights is maximalist. I just don’t know how the Democratic party is supposed to restrain the ACLU? Whatever that deal would look like, wouldn’t the internal negotiation would be precisely the bloodless wonkery and political hypocrisy that made Hillary widely hated? And all that maneuvering could still crumble if just one dedicated atheist wanted to fight their case all the way. As happened with gay marriage! Major queer advocacy groups did not want to bush for a Supreme Court case at that time, but two lawyers and one woman refused to wait. Regional devolution on human rights (which is what you are describing) is a return to a pre-Civil War understanding of the United States of America, isn’t it? And relatedly (C), aren’t these tendencies continuations of the successful means and attitudes of the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Rights movement, and Gay Rights movement? Abandoning a strategy that as won phenomenal gains over 60 years because we lost one Presidential election seems like an overreaction?

    As a very different objection, you have put yourself in the business of throwing the wrong sort of leftist out – the kind who objects to being called on to invoke God, the kind who works in a comic book shop, loves comic books, and feels objectifying covers to be a slap in the face. Right? To take your lesson to heart it must start with you offering what principle you will compromise, how will you bend? Present this as a question, “hey friends, I think that we have to prioritize and negotiate or we might lose everything. What’s most important to you?” Your call for others to surrender their own civil rights rings, for me, hollow without you identifying what you will surrender. Does that make sense?

    I think you are right that Democrats would be fools to not negotiate with Republicans. But, but, but. Clinton won the popular vote, and to dream to win three consecutive Presidential elections is a wild dream (I dream I dreamed, yes, but still wild). I think the idea that our coalition is too small, that we must change or be forever locked out of power, is absurd. If our democracy is healthy then there will be a regular alternation of political power. The idea that if we are wise then we will always win elections is not plausible.

    Since that doesn’t make sense, it is probably not what you meant. I think that you meant, to find a way to build consensus and to take issues off the table. And again, I feel like what you describe is not consistent with my understanding how effective advocacy has proceeded. In my lifetime we have gone from a President who would not say “AIDS” to gay marriage, trans rights enshrined in law in some states, and a department of justice that argues trans discrimination is sex discrimination. Could those have been won with constant offers of compromise? What civil rights or other political movements do you think are a good example of what you have in mind?

    That was really long! If you read it, then I thank you for your time, and I hope that I said something worth listening to.

    love, Alice

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    There is a sense in which my political experience has been a long series of bendings–of trying to be supportive of actions and campaigns that I thought were unwise, or saying my piece and letting it lie, since the alternative is being That Guy. I get tired of it–when I can see a cause-and-effect chain stretching out ahead of an action that will actually not achieve what the actor means to achieve but the contrary, and I note it, and they do it anyway and I’m included in the negative consequences, I not only get tired, I get frightened. That’s politics, sure, but the idea that we simply have to say, “All the feelings that everyone has–and all the demands they make to the commons about those feelings–are by definition ok because that’s what pluralism is” that is both a valid description of an ideal democratic culture in the future and a strategically impoverished understanding of how to get there in an environment where scarcity still governs, where we cannot do all the things that might want doing. I also think we spend a lot of time in recent years gaslighting fellow progressives about bad conversations within their own social worlds: that they didn’t see or hear what they did see and hear, that they weren’t bullied or threatened unless they are on the list of subject categories known to be bullied or threatened. We rob ourselves of moments of affinity because we’ve increasingly insisted that highly specific subjectivities have experiences that no other subjectivity can possibly understand or analogize to. We close conversations in the name of consensus and then fail to notice when people who were totally in the room to start have quietly trickled out.

    I think if you want two good models for a slower, more consensus-driven kind of social change, one would be cigarettes and the other would be gay marriage. I know, they don’t really belong in the same breath, but–cigarette smoking is genuinely down, and that took a long time, to the great frustration of some public health experts and scientists who thought that once the data was clear, change just had to follow. Many of them wanted to enforce change more stringently, but when they did, they often produced a kind of counter-reaction. So patience was the winning strategy. The same for gay marriage–what changed things was a slow march towards a redefinition of decency and fairness, towards social connectedness. There were moments of radical confrontation in there that had some usefulness–and some useful moments of dissent from queer activists who thought marriage was a very tame goal to work towards. But the people working for it were mostly very strategic, very methodical, very patient, and a good model for what at least trying to connect to people outside the initial circle of the persuaded might look like.

  11. Alice says:

    Thank you for your reply. From your response I think that I had misunderstood your Thoughts a bit and I suspect that you and I agree more than we disagree. From my perspective gay marriage was a whirlwind and by no means dominated by consensus seeking. But I think that the activism you denounce is not even a social circle I move in, nor one in which I would feel comfortable.

    I think that I see, from a distance, the vicious exclusion that you describe. I share your horror at claims of unknowable experiences. I think that my experiences as someone who is trans lend me, somewhat, an understanding of the feeling of cultural invisibility of low class whites. I understand the pain of not seeing yourself reflected to you, or of being always a joke and not a person, and I believe that whites without college degrees also experience that pain.

    I think, at the same time, that when arguments of distinguished knowledge are advanced by people who are black, or gay, or disabled, etc. it is often a response to their experience that people who are white, or straight, or abled, have consistently failed to understand. I think that “can’t” is usually wrong, my guess is it is not knowing as a result of not wanting to know, rather than some essential nature of the particular mode of oppression.

    And as to whether there is abuse within activist and progressive circles, and not all of it directed at women, yes, that’s just true.

    At the same time, I think it is important to keep also in mind the toll extracted from participating in some conversations. I mean, I think at some point we need to practice how to respond to the arguments of our opponents, but I’m not going to participate in spaces where “is this person a man or a woman” is an acceptable public conversation. That’s a choice I make in the narrow interest of my mental health.

    But I think I you and I agree that more care, more concern, more vulnerability, more intimacy, and more tenderness are called for.

    We are in utter agreement that the basic operation of a pluralist culture is not strategically savvy. I think that not all actions are strategic. I think the young latina woman who posted about her experience of being accused of plagiarism was not engaging in strategic political action, but in the daily revelation of self necessary to live a whole and well life. Does this make sense?

    I am confused by your criticisms of Clinton when set beside your criticisms of liberals. Because the sort of prioritization, public opinion opportunism, small push policies, seems to me to be the primary mode of operation of the Democratic party, and seems even to be the grounds on which you criticized Clinton. So here I think I still misunderstand you, or perhaps you and I perceive Clinton differently.

    ~Well wishes and no reply expected

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the point that not all action is strategic is crucial. So we should work at the level of feelings and intuitions. Not as puppetmasters, but as feeling people–and as people who can read rooms well. Even a kind of reserve, or a sort of tonal objectivity, is a structure of feeling. The point is that it can be abling or disabling, empowering or self-destructive, any of it, and when we’re in feedback loops of self-destruction, we need to find a way out. Or someone needs to help us out.

    Trump’s capacity to read the rooms he was in hasn’t been talked about enough, by the way. That’s another thing I need to take up. If he can do that, we can do it–or we can prefer political leaders who can do it. Right now the Democratic party elite are almost to a person not people able to do that.

  13. Alice says:

    Yeah, I think it’s also become more clear to me in your subsequent posts that you are directing your comments largely at people not me.

    I’m not a humanist, I’m a math major and a little autistic. I have never felt that I could read rooms well. I make not claim to a particular expertise in understanding others. My life is in many ways a series of looking back and realizing just how poorly I understood the expectations and norms of those I was among. I am in fact likely to lose my current job because of precisely how poorly I read my classroom. It’s something I need to get better at, and something I am working on with my students. I think this is why I identify so strongly with my party’s leaders who share this deficit (Clinton and Gore).

    I don’t know how important room reading is. My guess is that the extinction of Blue Dog Democrats in the 2010 midterm as they were ousted for their ACA vote and the corresponding loss of effective surrogates and representatives has done a lot to increase Democratic / non-college white alienation.

    But this is where my preference lies, right? Finding those pro-Clinton voices in even the Trumpiest of counties and providing them with material and emotional support so that they can make their own arguments to their neighbors, rather than to come as an outsider. But the answer is always “both” and “all of the above” right? :)

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