What liberals like me need to learn from the election of Donald Trump

America is a shameful place.

This is a country that followed up on the election of its first black president nearly 150 years after American blacks were given the right to vote with the election of a man who is openly racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. This is a country where those most in need of protection are turned away because of their religion. This is a country where we view yesterday’s abortion survivor as today’s welfare queen; where one in four black men can expect to be arrested in their lifetime; where we honor veterans with homelessness, stigmatize the mentally ill, and segregate ourselves based on class, religion, and culture. This is a nation that is deeply divided. And you know what?

We need to stop talking about that for one second, and listen.

tny-chip-somodevilla
Photo: Chip Somodevilla for Getty

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking to conservative Christians. The reason why is because that’s the mindset I know. We are the most outspoken toward the identity we left behind, and I am no exception. But today, I’m speaking to liberals. To myself. Because this is a moment that calls for soul-searching in the midst of anger. We are so righteous, so often, so quick to defend those we perceive as victims, so quick to defend ourselves from the slightest attacks, that amidst all the activism, we never stand still. We don’t listen very well, even while calling for those who don’t agree with us to listen.

So today, I am compelled to ask why this is the case. I’m compelled to ask why the pursuit of truth and justice means we must stamp out all dissent. I’m compelled to ask why the dissenting are reduced to “stupid” and “bigoted.” Even when we’re right, we tend to be ungracious and self-aggrandizing. As though right makes might. As though anyone has ever responded positively to shame from anonymous sources. As though our anger and vitriol is anything but our own emotional expression, valid and needed though that may be for our personal senses of self and feelings that though the world is unjust, that we are just. It’s awfully excluding, after all, to limit truth to ideological orthodoxy: isn’t that exactly what we accuse conservatives of?

Several months ago, Vox’s Emmett Rensin wrote what is in retrospect almost a prophetic piece  about the smugness of American liberalism, which is worth quoting at length:

“It is central to the liberal self-conception that what separates them from reactionaries is a desire to help people, a desire to create a fairer and more just world. Liberals still want, or believe they still want, to make a more perfect union.

“Whether you believe they are deluded or not, whether you believe this project is worthwhile in any form or not, what I am trying to tell you is that the smug style has fundamentally undermined even the aspiration, that it has made American liberalism into the worst version of itself.”

The smug style is the persistent belief that the only thing keeping people on the Right is the fact they don’t understand what’s best for them. It’s a view that’s patrician in the style of, for example, mansplaining. The factor of difference is the directionality.

I’m tired of this incessant tendency on the left to resort to shaming when we feel slighted. It doesn’t matter if we’re right. The way to win hearts and minds is graciously, and we need to understand in our hearts that it probably isn’t going to happen online. Maybe that’s not the point of the Internet – that, I will admit. These spaces online are spaces of expression. But at what cost? At what cost to our pursuit of justice in this world, to fairness, to decency?

Rensin’s point on this is of much importance to our industry: “It is impossible, in the long run, to cleave the desire to help people from the duty to respect them. It becomes all at once too easy to decide you know best, to never hear, much less ignore, protest to the contrary.” This message could easily be turned on conservatives, but again, that isn’t the point. Donald Trump is our president-elect because he made the darkest parts of our hearts socially acceptable, yes – but he’s also our president-elect because he spoke his mind, resisted every attempt at shaming, and brought to the forefront of people’s imaginations a vision of strong-man resistance that tapped into the desires many feel to reclaim glory they feel has been taken from them. In the midst of our pain, we need to acknowledge that most human of needs. We have spent the last eight years winning the culture wars, which came at the expense of a large subsection of America who felt ignored for too long and spoke out.

Your pain is legitimate. Your anger is legitimate. I am right there with you. But in the midst of this turmoil, please remember empathy. Call out injustice where you see it. But don’t go looking for it; if you look for it, you will find it everywhere. And if you turn your back and sneer at conservatives as you walk away, remember that any meaningful change will come about only through cooperation. We perpetuate the ideological schism just as much as conservatives do. And now, it’s our turn for humility. I hope we too can learn what we need to from this.

Emmett Rensin, “The Smugness of American Liberalism”

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