Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The mirror

Joseph Fishkin

Electing a President is a process that reflects America.  Imperfectly, to be sure.  The electoral college / popular vote split is disturbing and reflects a yawning gulf between modern democratic norms and our current constitutional system.  This gulf is less fixable today than it was yesterday.  With two electoral/popular splits cutting in the same direction within a 16 year period, the “problem” of the electoral college now takes on a sharper partisan edge, which probably entrenches it.  Meanwhile, our media, and other major players in our public discourse, have plenty to be ashamed of in terms of the impression they gave the public of the two candidates this election cycle.  They gave us a somewhat distorted mirror.

But even so: half of America just voted for Donald Trump.  That means his pitch speaks to half the country.  I think liberals make a mistake in attempting to understand Trumpism primarily through earnest looks at the most depressed corners of the Rust Belt or West Virginia where Trump runs strongest.  To be clear: it is good to build bridges of empathy between parts of America that are very distant, regardless of Trump; and liberals can learn something about Trumpism from places where it is extra-concentrated.  But half the country does not live in a depressed former steel town.  (To “understand” Hillary Clinton voters, would you go interview people exclusively in a couple of ultra-liberal neighborhoods in Manhattan and San Francisco?)  New Haven County, where I’m living this year, is a pretty typical large blue county: 42% Trump, about the same as the blue state of Connecticut as a whole.  The liberal enclave of Travis County [Austin], Texas, where I usually live, is 27% Trump—still more than a quarter.  In other words, a lot of Trump voters are much closer at hand than most liberals think.

There will be a lot of talk in the coming weeks, months, and years about America divided.  We are, profoundly—not only by partisanship, but also overwhelmingly by race, increasingly by education, and more than ever by gender.  We are deeply divided in the sources of information we find credible—in our rules of recognition for which information sources we think tell us something trustworthy about reality.  This means we live in a deeply divided public sphere.  But even so, a lot of the people in the mirror are closer than they appear.  Geographically, many are nearer than the state-level electoral map would suggest.  And in terms of ideology, I am not convinced that our divide is as deep as some of the other divides just mentioned.  A recognizable antecedent of the economic populism that was one crucial thread of Trump’s appeal was once a centerpiece of what Democrats stood for.  Someday it could be again.  Such economic populism can either be intertwined with principles of racial inclusion, or set against them and turbocharged with racial resentment.  We have had both kinds in our history.  In the next chapter, a lot depends on which it will be.

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