Trump’s election has been hailed as the harbinger of many things, but if we can say anything with certainty, it is that Trump’s victory is evidence of an ever-deeper divide in American political life.
The roots of this divide go back long before Trump arrived on the political scene and will most likely survive his presidency. This is partly the inevitable result of a two-party system, and partly the product of deep and wide cultural and economic changes that have taken place over the last 50 years, and that seem to have accelerated in the last 20. The vilification of those who see the world differently, who prioritize different issues in elections and therefore vote differently, is made easier by social media, by partisan news outlets, and by the clear urban and rural lines that divide Democrats and Republicans across most of the country.
Ironically, Bruce Springsteen, who is an ardent supporter of Democratic politics in the US and who performed at Hillary Clinton’s last campaign rally the night before the election, has perhaps best captured the frustration, hopelessness, and fear of a large swath of the American population since the 1970s. At least until Trump came along.
My worry after Brexit and after Trump’s election, as we look forward to elections all over Europe in 2017, is that we are not taking that frustration and fear seriously enough. The kind of shrill liberalism that minimizes the very real problems faced by many Trump supporters by insisting on a single narrative of American progress and political correctness (without winning hearts and minds) has heard its death knell. Liberalism needs to take illiberal voices seriously, not because we all need to agree or because we want to legitimize all opinions as equally valid, but because we all need to talk to each other across these deep cleavages and outside the echo chambers we inhabit online. Just as the proponents of liberal ideals such as equal marriage ask those who disagree with them to see the real needs and desires of the people behind the rhetoric, so too liberals need to look deep into the American rust belt and see people whose ideas they may find offensive, whose demands they may not understand, but who are people nonetheless, with real needs and desires, hopes and fears that motivate when and for whom they vote. Shouting those voices down is not progress. And as Trump’s election demonstrates, it’s not an effective way to consolidate change, either.
The title of the DOC’s Rhodes Forum this year was ‘The Chaos of Multiplicity: An Urgent Call for Dialogue’. I am not sure that multiplicity necessarily leads to chaos, but after last week, I am more certain than ever that dialogue is urgent. Constitutional and legal protections for both citizens and non-citizens can and should be imposed from the top down, but social change comes from the bottom up. And it starts with talking to each other. It starts with respect, with taking each other seriously, especially when we vehemently disagree. It starts with both Trump’s supporters and his opponents coming together to denounce and take action against the rise in racist and Islamophobic attacks all over the country since the election. It starts with serious, open conversations about why people prioritize certain issues over others in an election – for example, choosing to see economic opportunity or trade protectionism as more important than racist and xenophobic rhetoric or unconstitutional deportation policies. It starts with examining the implications of this hierarchy for the social, cultural, and economic well-being of the country and its citizens – all of its citizens. It starts with saying that, yes, Trump is my president, and I need to take seriously the concerns of my fellow Americans who voted for him.
This election also demonstrated the power of words. Dismissing Trump’s statements about immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, gay people, and women as just campaign rhetoric is a stunning repudiation of the pain of millions of Americans to whom those words have caused real harm. Dialogue, of course, is also about words. It is about the power of words to effect change, propose solutions, and form a basis for action.
Dialogue is also relationships, too. It need not necessarily be easy, or characterised by agreement and lack of conflict, but it is relationship nonetheless. Dialogue exists between dialogue partners. From two (or more) views, a third thing emerges, one that did not exist before. Relationship is an incredibly effective tool in instantiating social change in many of the areas seen as key to this election, whether it be views on immigrants (although this is a very complex issue, with many counter-arguments); religion, particularly Islam; or equal marriage. Dialogue is thus one means of instantiating empathy, which some proponents see as one of the positive potential outcomes of this election.
We may not achieve a workable consensus. We may not be able to find common ground on every issue and progress from that foundation. It will inevitably be difficult. This plea for dialogue is by no means a call to paper over the very real and substantial differences that divide us. These must be seriously addressed. But after last Tuesday, one thing is clear: not making an effort at dialogue is no longer an option.