Do people understand what politics is or how it works? When I see talk about how divisive politics has become or how bad we’ve gotten at listening to and respecting the other side, it makes me wonder.
The New York Times has an odd article called, “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” that features a handful of Trump supporters, who are put off by “Protests and righteous indignation on social media and in Hollywood” against Trump. The article ponders the lost opportunity.
One of the Trump supporters is described as “a small-business owner in South Carolina, [who] voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican.” The man “should be a natural ally for liberals” if only he weren’t “feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority”. Another compares being a Trump supporter in today’s political climate to being gay in the 50s.
But should we really be shocked that a self-declared conservative is treated by liberal friends and acquaintances as though he “took sides”? Would a softer touch really turn another Trump voter who thinks protests are “destroying the country” and activists are worse than “Islamic terrorists”? Maybe what’s shocking is that somebody would consider them natural allies of liberalism in the first place.
There’s a revealing passage in the middle of the article: “if political action is meant to persuade people that Mr. Trump is bad for the country, then people on the fence would seem a logical place to start. Yet many seemingly persuadable conservatives say that liberals are burning bridges rather than building them.” Underlying this peculiar notion of who is “on the fence” is the erroneous assumption that the central work of politics is persuading the other side, that political victories are predominantly the fruit of dispassionate debates and expressions of unity.
This would make sense if every action a politician or bureaucrat took was a direct response to the will of their constituents, but even assuming the Platonic ideal of a responsive politician, who exactly are their constituents and how would they know their will? Moreover, how do these constituents even find each other to come together and guarantee their will is heard? A debate can’t fix a logistics problem. A vote doesn’t oblige a legislator to act.
Moral exhortations and protests aren’t supposed to change the hearts and minds of the other side — protestors didn’t flock to airports to sell wavering Trump supporters on rejecting the Muslim travel ban. Instead they’re supposed to pressure people in power to stop posturing and do something and to identify and embolden political allies.
The protests are also a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the President that Trump’s supporters chose, an attempt to wrest political power from them, to weaken and demoralize their political ideals. There is no pleasant way to do this. As the article goes on to say,“…for many Trump voters, even peaceful protests are unsettling.” But how else could it be? Should the opposition give Trump voters a hug and treat them to ice cream as they try to defeat everything they stand for?
Now obviously protests and political criticism aren’t enough to win elections. Nobody is arguing they are. A positive vision for the future also has to be developed that can attract some of the people who voted for Trump or who didn’t vote at all, a vision that concretely shows how they too will benefit. But not all political power is derived from elections. And elections are won with more than just personalized sales pitches and measured debates. They’re won in part because of existing political alliances and the logistical infrastructure they produced, alliances and infrastructure that formed and solidified through other political actions, such as… well, you get the idea.
There’s an appealing narrative out there that because Trump is so extreme, liberals and so called reasonable conservatives will have to set aside their differences and work together to defeat him. It’s cute, but one has to wonder what that would actually look like. Coalition building requires more than just recognition that the present is bad. What issue do the defenders of national unity imagine could bring together, for example, a white Evangelical small-business owner from the Midwest, a white Silicon Valley tech engineer, a white Wall Street banker and a minority fast food worker from Atlanta? Fake news? Sexism? Racism? Ties to Putin? Civic norms? Realistically somebody is going to have to be left out if common ground is to be reached.
Politics is definitionally divisive. It’s the contest of irreconcilable moral visions for how society should be organized and whom it should benefit. This is bound to be uncomfortable.
Yet the article would blame these divisions on something called “moral Bolshevism” or “the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one”. It’s hard to know what to make of the notion that belief in a political vision makes one a Bolshevik. What kind of confused take on the world assumes that liberals (who are apparently communists?) are the only people who think themselves right?
I guess we’re supposed to conclude that having a political view and taking it seriously is bad, that is unless it’s really the views themselves we’re supposed to have a problem with and not how they’re being expressed.