A Nation, Divided, with Liberty and Justice for the Few


I am one of the few people who predicted (not in writing) that Donald Trump would be the 45th president of the US since early in 2016, at a time when everyone else said it was just plain impossible, providing a long list of facts and figures that proved, for them, that there was no way under the sun that he would be elected.

Back in April, I wrote a piece called “What Will We Do if Trump Is the Next President?” In that piece, I talked about things from the distance of not knowing. I wanted to be prepared. I still stand behind everything I said then, and yet now it’s the morning after, and I am directly in the reality I was only imagining back in April. So I am shocked, truly shocked, even as I am not surprised.
I am shocked, because I consider Donald Trump’s election as perilous for humanity through actions and policies that are distinctly unpredictable, as everything is about him. In this context, I experience a need to reorient myself in a profound way, and that’s what the shock is about: as much as I have been critical of the status quo, and as much as I believed that we were already marching towards more and more destruction, it was familiar. A Hillary Clinton presidency, from my perspective, would have been more of the same. It would have allowed me to continue to live my life and do my work with some lull, some small and subtle denial of the global situation we are facing. With Donald Trump being elected, that luxury is no longer possible.
I am also shocked because of the vast disconnect between my own prediction of the next four years negatively affecting significant portions of the US population and the observable fact that so many people voted for him. If I am honest with myself, I don’t really understand how it’s possible, how it came to be. I believe that a Trump presidency will intensify the plight of low-income people of all demographics, including in particular low-income whites, Trump’s core constituency. How is it that they came to vote for him, then? Without understanding it, I wouldn’t know how to respond, or what to even envision as a way to create change.

It is too easy to write off large swaths of the US public as “stupid.” I don’t believe people in the US possess any more or less basic intelligence than people anywhere else, in any demographic or circumstance. To imagine human beings who are not in any essential way different from me making a choice that I consider so terrifying points me to a different level of analysis, one that insists on seeing the humanity of all, and thus focuses on social, political, economic, and cultural conditions that might explain why some groups of people chose this direction.
Thankfully, I don’t have to start from scratch. Based on the analyses of a few thought leaders, my combined conclusion is that an either/or narrow choice, especially between two candidates who are both disliked, in the context of an unstable world in which many feel betrayed by the establishment and frightened for their ability to live well into the future, cannot yield wisdom. This is a mouthful, and now comes the unpacking.
Last night, when I talked with Sue Holper, my daily exercise phone buddy, we were commenting on how we are expected to vote from a place of being passive spectators, without full engagement, certainly without getting to the needs we have and being able to make choice from them, and without connecting with others to forge collaborative and creative paths. This, and the idea of checks and balances, are both foundational elements of liberal democracies. They presume the very notion of human beings that is at the root of capitalism and classical economics: a self-interested, rational person, who could not possibly be thinking about the whole, only about their own interest. When all are doing that, with little mutual-influence or coordination, the result is supposed to yield wisdom, both economically and politically. It doesn’t.
I derive solace from knowing people like Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute. In his piece Crazy politics? How much longer will we wait?, he focuses on how the political system could be made wiser and saner. It won’t happen by changing who the candidates are. It can only happen by changing the way the system works. He documents a few dozen possibilities, ranging from minimal tweaks to wholesale revamping of electoral politics that allows people to participate differently in how societies are run. This is the stuff of hope, of what nourishes me to keep going.
And this is not the system we have. In the midst of the devastation, I find it meaningful and significant to understand fully why the political system we have now in place is so capable of generating more of the same or worse, and rarely better. Not better in the sense of making it work for more and more of us and for the world and all of life, though sometimes better in circumscribed measures (more people now have access to health care than before Obama’s presidency, and that is likely to now be taken away).
In the days leading up to the election, I came across an analysis of US elections by Arnold August, a Canadian researcher whose primary focus is Cuba. In this article, he questions the common notion of voting for the lesser of two evils. Here is one quote that caught my attention: “The corporate media and their two main parties use the election campaign to promote the two-party system as the only choice. This goal is sacred, since its objective is to suffocate any burgeoning struggle for a left-wing progressive alternative.”
This election was unique in that both candidates were disliked by many, and the idea of the lesser of two evils was also the motivation for many conservatives, not only liberals and progressives. Just as many people voted for Clinton for fear of a Trump victory, many others voted for Trump for fear of a Clinton victory, not specifically because they liked or approved of Trump. (In fact, I found a fascinating philosophical analysis of the issue, from a conservative perspective, here.) Either way, many people voted out of fear, not because of actively wanting to have their candidate be the next president. This is clearly one way in which the system reduces the possibility of an outcome that taps into people’s wisdom. When we are in fear, our thinking is affected and diminished. We are less likely to reflect on the larger whole and more on our own survival and that of those closest to us.
This kind of fear is also deeply related to the history and analysis I read in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. This is why I see Trump’s election as the result rather than cause of where we are heading. In her book, she provides ample documentation for how low-income whites, Trump’s core constituency, have consistently been invited and pushed to distance themselves from low-income people of color, and especially African Americans, and in this way used to support the severe mistreatment of African Americans which continues, now in a new guise of “War on Drugs” and the growing association of criminalization with Blacks. This is one of the ways of explaining how it is that white working class people have come to identify with the corporate elite that is directly responsible for the progressive diminishment of their livelihoods. As an example of this: it is corporations that have consistently dismantled and outsourced jobs that working people of all races have had access to previously. This trend of identifying upward, against the group’s so-called rational interests, has been intensified by the Trump campaign with its deliberate acts of scapegoating vulnerable populations and appealing to the anger and resentment of white working-class men in particular. This move, as Michelle Alexander repeatedly shows, has been a consistent thread in the US since whiteness was invented during slavery.
Once again, a two-party, winner-takes-all election is not conducive to transformative thinking. The only true alternative would be questioning the fundamental assumptions of the world we live in. And yet, as Michael Lerner points out: “Most Democrats, social change activists, and environmentalists don’t want to look at the need to transform the larger economic system.” Why? In the context of fear, it’s perhaps too risky, and that fear consistently paints the Democrats as a pale version of the conservative platforms, not usually in a place of a clear, inspiring vision. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy provided such a vision for many, and there was consistent data that suggested he stood a much better chance at winning against Trump than Hillary, who was, and was seen, as an establishment candidate. By many accounts, Bernie Sanders was actively prevented from winning the nomination, in large part because, like Donald Trump, he was a disruptor of business as usual, and didn’t in any way “prove” himself to the establishment.
Michael Lerner’s core points bear repeating, and I would urge readers to look up his article as well as possibly attend the “Now What?” conference that Tikkun is organizing this weekend to support planning for what comes next.
Based on years of practical research, he has uncovered core dynamics that lead working class people to vote conservative. Life under modern capitalism US-style, without any true safety nets like the ones that exist in Europe, leads to a “capitalism-generated belief that everyone is alone, so you have no choice but to focus on taking care of yourself because no one else will be there for you.” Caring about others – the fundamental premise of a world that works for all – appears dangerous or naïve or both, what Michael Lerner calls “the triumph of selfishness as common sense.”
A second core dynamic is the fallout of the belief in meritocracy that leads to self-blame for those who don’t “make it” in the accepted, normative sense. Self-blame is extremely poisonous, and it’s then a relief to find others who can be scapegoated. This is one of the strong elements of Donald Trump’s message. Of course it would appeal to alleviate the unbearable weight of insecurity.
Such dynamics help me understand even more fully the deep alienation that has led working class people, both in the US and in Europe, to vote for conservative and right wing candidates and policies.
Arnold August argues that who will be the next president is determined by what he refers to as the ruling elite. Both in his article and in a book I had read of his, he is making the claim that Barack Obama was fully supported by the ruling elite. Given how much even the Republican establishment was distancing itself from Donald Trump, I must conclude that this result is not what was planned, by anyone. In that the establishment itself may be shaken up by this outcome, there may be the source of some possibility. Many of us who care for life on this precious planet know that it is not possible to both continue business as usual and transform things. While this is by far not the outcome I had hoped for, I am slowly edging my way towards looking for the possibility of a new coming together in opposition to the larger forces that put in place one presidency after another that doesn’t change the underlying logic that divides us and pits us against each other.
What I truly hope for, and plan to keep working towards regardless, is the collaborative future I envision, in which resources are managed collaboratively by their users, as humans have done throughout our life on the planet; in which decisions are made using technologies and processes that support participation and collective wisdom; and in which care and generosity are, once again, allowed to flourish. Because I don’t know what will get us there or not, I continue to use my privilege, including especially my relative capacity to speak up without facing major risks, as well as access to words and to many relationships, to do what I know to do. This is why I speak here. May we live to see better times.
Image Credits: Top: Donald Trump Signs The Pledge, by Michael Vadon, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Below: Donald Trump supporters, IMG_2543, by Elvert Barnes, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

2 thoughts on “A Nation, Divided, with Liberty and Justice for the Few

  1. Yes. Thank you. I am 81 years old and have limited resources, financial and physical. But I can think and I can talk and I can write. I am going to spend the rest of what I have, for as long as I can, to move toward “the possibility of a new coming together in opposition to the larger forces that put in place one presidency after another that doesn’t change the underlying logic that divides us and pits us against each other.”
    I appreciate your final wish “May we live to see better times” though I don’t think I will. But what the heck, Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to see women vote, much less run for president! Yet it happened.
    Thanks again. JM

  2. Susan B. Anthony did not have powerful economic forces aligned against suffrage for women. It was a social issue like marriage equality. The forces of global capitalism will not be defeated by a marginalized left. They will only be defeated by the total collapse of the sustaining ecosystems of this planet. But I could be wrong.

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