A Protest Vote Decades in the Making

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“White people elected Trump.”

Over these last 10 days, these words are showing up everywhere. Mostly because they’re true. And white progressives actually helped.

Among most white people I know who think of themselves as social progressives and who, like I, have had loads of access to privilege – aka education, careers, financial literacy, problems of identity that way outnumber problems of monetary survival – reactions to the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency have gone from sheer horror and shock, to a sincere leaning in to stoke the embers of optimism and kindness.

Then there’s been the more troubling symptom of competitive posturing. A weird, but way too recognizable vying for who’s the smartest, most morally advanced person in the room.

Such is the dark side of progressives with privilege.

The digression into competition has shown up across European and American history, for two primary reasons. First, actively acting from competition distracts. Posturing with like-minded peers is a way of avoiding more discomforting but authentic responses. In the case of last week’s election outcomes, one response that matches is confusion – allowing oneself to be IN shock for a time. And then, maybe as a result of deeply and directly experiencing disorientation and pain, moving on to consider our role in bringing on the earthquake.

Without the whole progression, we likely will not be all that effective at discerning useful action. And we might too easily default to our sad history of talking about action, but not ever taking it.

There’s another problem revealed by intellectual-moral competition among social progressives. A more fundamental problem. The fact that privilege itself is crafty. It holds tight. It’s hard to see or admit, and harder to give up.

Paradoxically, it’s also part of privilege to have the time and space to be confused, but with that it’s part of our responsibility. Privileged people need to take the time to be blown out so there is finally room – some better chance – to hear what we haven’t been listening to.

Certainly we’ve had some understanding of our role in systems of oppression around race, gender, and sexual diversity. We agree there’s way more to be done in addressing these issues.

But, I for one, haven’t been listening well to working people. And because I’ve been living in Portland, Oregon for most of my adult life, I’m getting that I’ve been especially out of touch with rural white people.

Kathy Cramer is a professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She’s been listening to people in rural Wisconson and other states for decades. As a result, she’s come to have understandings that apply to Trump’s election – understandings that highlight an issue white people more like me have not been seeing.

In an expanded interview on November 8, Cramer summarized what she’s been learning from listening to rural Americans over the years.

Support for less government among lower-income people is often derided as the opinions of people who have been duped. Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.

[It’s] the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

In my own confusion about what’s up and what next, Dr. Cramer’s findings are helpful. And I’m coming to understand the symptom of competitive posturing as an expression of what sustains the white intra-racial divide that has stoked the feelings and political actions Cramer describes.

In these days of shattered identity for me, and perhaps for you, I appreciate Cramer’s work as it spans the gap between two distinct factions of white culture – as it makes plain the division and lays naked any explanation demeaning character and capacity for reasoning (hoodwinked, deplorables …) in interpretations proffered solely by we who have had more access.

I still feel strongly that the first step is being blown out – what may be summarized from the first several stages of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Loss of Identity. We who have had more access and thus privilege will do better to NOT KNOW for awhile. And soon, as Campbell describes, to pay attention and to engage the second stage: Wandering. We privileged ones (whether we know ourselves that way or not), are not usually very good at either of these.

Great tragedy, horrible encounters with life threatening illness, sudden financial ruin, things like these can bring us to our knees and force the development of better listening. But, like with the slam to identity this election represents for many of us, no catastrophe is a guaranteed transit to growth and wisdom.

And engaging the issue of classism as it affects white people and all people is never just an intellectual thing. It is not something a well-articulated list of steps or guidelines can ever bring forward. Really being present to the facts and possible remedies to classism looks like the humility to be wrong.

It looks like willingness to change the stories we tell of who we and others are – to avoid the seduction of what Chimamanda Adiche calls, the single story, and instead to open to being surprised by the complexity of anyone we meet. This kind of humility and listening can go a long way as a healthy and respectful response in shattered and uncertain times.

Uncertain, for sure. Rich – likely so. Possibly way richer than the lives of quiet desperation we of privilege often experience, but really don’t wish to admit.

One step and then the next.

 

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