The Morning After
Americans have just elected Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States of America. I know that a few of you are elated and many more are terrified. I can understand both emotions. I am far from a natural-born Hillary Clinton advocate, but during the course of the campaign there was simply no possibility that I would be voting for Trump, a man who who speaks against many of my deepest principles. And yet he won — by the slimmest of margins — but a clear win nonetheless.
Though I love to learn new things, the outcome of this election was a painful but necessary lesson of the risks of being in a values-based echo chamber: I failed to appreciate how fundamental the struggle of values and needs was among my neighbors and fellow countrymen.
Like millions of others I kept making an argument and principled stand for the higher significance of my values, and though we weren’t wrong in that argument, higher significance will never overcome more fundamental needs.
The lesson here is extremely important, and one that it’s all too easy for us to forget in progressive communities: we have in democracy a reliable, liberal mechanism for populations to express their interests, and yet the center of gravity of what occupies most people’s consciousness is one that we’re mostly far out of touch with. We’re in an echo chamber of postmodern, globalist values. We group together on Facebook. We follow each other on Twitter. We consume digital media and stay abreast of events and global affairs. The whole world seems native to us, even as our neighbors, who have the most impact on our national lives, have become foreigners living beside us.
How clueless we’ve been.
Over the past 40-50 years the information age has exposed the fact that the spectrum of consciousness is wider than at any time in history. With increasingly-disparate levels of wealth and exploding access to education, media and perspectives, we’re seeing the effects of having at least six fully-inhabited levels of value consciousness on display throughout the world, from the agrarian reaches of Russia to the meditation seminars of Berkeley, from the totalitarian-religious warriors of ISIS to the Protestant-businessmen supporting Trump.
And yet the reality is this: the majority of the population, even in a developed country like the U.S., are expressing values that predate those of postmodern, multicultural globalism. More than even I originally suspected when I wrote The Great Divide, the differing political calculus between tribalists and globalists is immense.
For a tribalist, the fury of unredressed grievances at a tone-deaf establishment that’s seen the middle class struggle is a totalizing force in their political life: no moral principles, no economic argument, no social empathy can sway them from declaring that “anything goes” in a war on the agenda of the globalists as long as tribalists feel unseen, unheard and continue to lose economic, political and cultural ground in their home lands. This is a fundamental value and need, and the safety, security and identity which consumes it is prior to any later-stage values that might arise once it’s satisfied.
For the globalist, on the other hand, the sanctity of liberal principles — the rule of law, equal protection under the law, the peaceful transfer of power, equal rights for the marginalized — these are the inviolable sacreds for which no political compromise can be entertained. But they are significant values, arising only after basic security and safety has been met. (For evidence in another part of the world, consider the struggle of liberal democracy to take root in the middle east.)
And yet the lesson of this election is for my friends and me: if we want to work to foster significant multicultural values, we’ll have to do a far better job of listening to and engaging with those who have not had their fundamental needs met. Nothing less will do. Even as we band together in communities of shared meaning, equally important is getting out of our echo chambers and engaging outside of them.
It’s easy to see what we failed to integrate. We haven’t appreciated enough that when someone’s livelihood is threatened, when their identity is perceived to be under attack, when the pace of change feels beyond their ability to influence, they will operate from the most basic of values: security, safety, tribal bonding and nativism.
It’s easy for us to disregard those fears and that anger if we ourselves don’t feel threatened by the pace of change, by those who look different than us, or job insecurity. But we have an entire part of our body politic whose lowest levels of needs are not met. Is it any surprise when they support a populist who promises to take away the threats, to secure them against the unknown, and to give voice to their fury at the power structures that they feel have failed them? Can it really be a shock when they want to tear down a system that for too long has preached at them or regulated at them a set of higher-order values and evolved-social sensitivities that they feel they have no interest or no luxury to attend to?
Globalists failed to understand the dynamics here. We understood them cognitively, but how many of us truly “stood under” them in the sense that we fully inhabited the stories and anger? I know that even as I have predicted a war between tribalists and globalists over liberal values, it wasn’t until the election that I fully appreciated the magnitude of the life and death struggle they perceive: there really are that many people willing to risk everything in order to have their grievances heard.
My message to integralists is that we have to get out of the echo chamber and start engaging with the “deplorables.” I use that term quite intentionally as a critique of where we went wrong: if there are people who values you find reprehensible, find out what’s motivating them. Discover whether their grievances are temporary and addressable or whether their anger has become metastasized in their identity. Ask them what their deepest fears are, and what would make them feel less fearful. Ask them what changes they’d support and how fast they’re comfortable with seeing changes made. Ask them what three things they’d change about how people to talk to them, whether it’s the criticism they hear or the assumptions that people make about them. Challenge them to paint their most optimistic, inclusive picture of the world a year and ten years from now. Ask them what support they wish they had for the life they want to lead. Do all this, and do it again. Keep learning, keep listening, and keep trying to understand these people who appear to be but may, or may not, be so very different from yourself.
On the other hand, my message to those who have prevailed in this election cycle echoes that of Benjamin Franklin when asked what kind of government we now have: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” You’ve won. You now have in real world terms what amounts to almost unlimited power, with control of the executive and legislative branches at both the federal and state levels. There will be a lot of people who oppose and challenge your use of that power, but they likely won’t be able to stop you from fashioning the world you’ve decided to create. Use that power wisely. Remember that if you allow for violations of the constitutional principles that sanctify that power you do irreparable harm to your own cause and the nation you’re fighting to protect.
Don’t just wield power, seek to be powerful: be gracious in victory, and work to understand what special gifts your political opponents can offer you. You’ve felt unheard and angry, so try to appreciate how terrifying it is for others to be minorities that have little power in the world’s most powerful country. Consider how you can leverage the concerns you know so well — the fear of losing jobs in a fast-paced, technology-mad globalized world — in order to not only help those who look like you or vote like you but to extend those concerns and that empathy to those who are different from you ethnically, economically, sexually or religiously. Be bigger than what your critics contend. Surprise them with how gracefully power can be wielded by the powerful.
Democracy is a supremely messy way by which the world evolves. We know it’s a flawed system, and also the best we’ve got. It works because all of us agree that, despite our differences and our heated rhetoric, we come together after an election and we work to move forward where we can find common ground. It may seem there’s not a lot of common ground after an election like this one. But I’m going to leave you with a different idea: I actually believe there is a deeper and broader common ground at work than we realize.
The forces of evolution I describe in The Great Divide — technology, automation, capital flows, globalization, immigration and ethnic diffusion, stagnation of real incomes, and many others — these forces don’t just impact on Clinton voters or Trump voters, Brexit opponents or TPP advocates, Americans or Chinese.
They impact everyone. A rapidly-changing world that is in many ways moving too fast for all of us really is scary, uncomfortable and unsettling. We’re connected in ways we haven’t yet mastered, we’re learning at rates we can’t yet process and we are subject to forces we can’t hope to understand (even experts don’t really understand the complex dynamical systems at the core of their disciplines). We’re all in this messy, chaotic process together.
Yes, we should listen to each other and also argue with each other. We should try to convince each other of our viewpoints and then oppose what we can’t support. We should better account for the fears of those who don’t yet feel comfortable with multiculturalism while keeping up the fight to expand the values of inclusivity for all people. We should be both partisans and citizens. But through all of this necessary and useful messiness we should also understand that we face a shared reality together, and there’s a lot each of us brings to understanding and navigating it.
Because it’s this crazy 21st century that is our common ground. Whether it’s my Florida family members who supported Trump or my Australian friends who rooted for Clinton, they share a lot of common goals that have become increasingly threatened by the world we’re allowing to emerge. They want meaningful and well-paying jobs; lower wealth disparities throughout society; rejection of corporate overlords; safe places to raise their kids; a future not laden with interminable debt; political representation beyond corruption or purchase; access to affordable healthcare; national borders that mean something; cultural customs and heritage that are duly honored; a pace of change that is evolutionary but not revolutionary; security against terror; support for the 21st century workforce; and so on.
Reality is our common ground. Even in a post-fact world people cannot and will not deny the very forces that animate them from within. It’s our job to bring the best of these forces out in ourselves and help others do the same. And, as much as I would have resisted it yesterday, today it’s our duty as citizens to back our new president with the full faith and support that his office deserves. Whether he meets the honor of his station will be up to him. It’s up to us to grant that office the respect imbued in the Constitutional principles for which we fought, and to continue to never compromise that sacred honor.
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