We have trained ourselves far more in the art of vilification than communication.
Devin Poore grew up near the northeast corner of Washington State. Ferry County is one of the poorest in the state, with a median household income of 41,000 (contrasted with a state median of 66,000), and one of the most Republican. Sixty-one percent of those voting in 2016 cast their ballots for Donald Trump, compared to 38 percent statewide.
A mountain pass divides the county into two regions: to the south, a reservation that is home to remnants of the Colville tribe, and to the north, a sparsely populated landscape that is home to remnants of communities centered on logging, mining and ranching. Curlew, where Poore attended high school, boasted a population of 150.
Poore moved to Seattle for college seven years ago and stayed. He describes himself as a progressive humanist. He loathes Donald Trump. But he also increasingly loathes the way that some fellow progressives talk about the Trump voters he grew up with. I asked him about that.
Tarico: You say your heart is still in Ferry County—that you have dreams of moving back and working in some way on economic renewal in the area. Why?
Poore: This seems cliché, but the sense of community there is deeply woven. Your home doesn’t end at your front door. It’s rare to go anywhere, whether it’s paying your utility bill or going to the drug store, without stopping and having a conversation. It’s rejuvenating to run into people that you care about—friends, coworkers—whoever. In Seattle I could run errands for a whole day with my head down and headphones in.
The fact that it’s such a small area motivates people to get along. I never experienced vicious hatreds or bad blood. It’s a peaceful, gentle corner of the world, and the people are good people. They are like hobbits in the Shire—committed to and focused on the people and things that are close to them. They take care of their neighbors.
Tarico: But, but the Trump voters. Given what Trump is doing to our country—and our world—wouldn’t you find it hard to look people in the eye and know they are OK with that?
Poore: It’s definitely tough to stomach the thought that folks I grew up around—the same people who would come cheer for me at basketball games in high school—supported Trump in the 2016 election and likely continue to do so. To my eye, Trump is a morally desolate man who’s content to use any and all channels available to him, regardless of the consequences, to increase his personal wealth and power. It makes the ardent support he receives from his base enormously troubling and, in that sense, I absolutely understand and empathize with the frustration of progressives. But the level of vitriol directed at that base of support by the left . . . that just makes me sad.
I don’t think progressives are truly reckoning with what crafts a human identity. People become the totality of their experiences and actions over time. In a place like Ferry County, the majority of the inputs are conservative. When I first came to Seattle, I was certainly saddled with some beliefs that I’ve ultimately come to reject (to my great relief) as a result of my rural upbringing. I’m not saying it’s right, but we human don’t have an inborn disinformation filter that sets off an internal alarm system whenever we encounter questionable beliefs. If nothing or nobody is there to challenge those beliefs, then we roll with them 99% of the time.
To enter into a dialogue with people you disagree with, you have to be painstakingly honest about how people form their identities. It’s true that there’s not a loud diversity of opinions in a place like Ferry County. But the same could be said of Seattle—for similar reasons. Someone who grew up with a liberal family amidst liberal values might say, “This is absolutely true”, but it’s potentially just as much an unexamined belief as those held by conservative voters.
You can’t teach something that you don’t understand yourself. Critical examination of your own beliefs is crucial to understanding how to best communicate those beliefs to someone who may have been raised with an opposing view.
Tarico: You’ve said before that progressives talk about and to people like the Ferry County folks in the worst possible way if what we are after is to change hearts and minds.
Poore: At an emotional level what they hear from us is disdain and some level of contempt – when has that ever been an effective way to change minds? It puts people on the defensive. If you just assume that everyone in my town is a bigot and that’s the deepest level of analysis that you are willing to go to . . . as soon as it becomes clear that your arguments are formed upon that basis, then they become null and void in the minds of the people who you are hoping to change or draw to your cause.
Tarico: “You’re an idiot so you should join us” doesn’t work too well?
Poore: You really couldn’t come up with a worse way to cultivate good will and trust.
Look, I get it. The Trump machine is ramped up all day every day. It’s horrifying. Some of the damage is irreparable. So left wingers are like Fuck these people. I don’t want to hear anyone even try to make a defensible case for why someone would have voted for Donald Trump. If you voted for Trump, I don’t have any interest in trying to understand your thinking. You are just a piece of shit. You are a terrible human being.
If someone even cares to try to understand these people, they are stepping into morally suspect territory in the eyes of some progressives.
I look at the vitriol and hate directed at people like the folks I grew up with and I honestly think less of our movement. Progressives are taking the emotionally gratifying path, rather than the effective one. We have trained ourselves far more in the art of vilification than communication.
We should be good stewards of our society and good neighbors to our neighbors, even if we disagree with them. To not do that is a failure of compassion and a violation of what it means to be progressive. When we say fuck that person rather than I want to have a conversation, it leaves too much on the table in the service of anger, fear, hatred, and feeling superior.
Tarico: What are urban progressives missing when they look at the people of Ferry County?
Poore: I see people who, to the best of their information, are attempting to act in the best interest of themselves and their families and their community. I also see people who feel very pushed aside, like they don’t count and their voices aren’t heard.
For example, there are ranchers in the area having livestock killed by wolves, and people in Seattle rooting for the wolves in the name of conservation. These families live close to the bone. Financially, the loss of a cow is a big deal. It’s also brutal emotionally. So, wolves get culled and some environmentalists freak out. And the ranchers feel like there are these people on the other side of the state who have no clue. And then they parlay this frustration into their own overgeneralizations: This wolf recovery is a liberal hippy pipe dream, and my family is paying the price.
They feel like an afterthought, if they feel thought of at all.
Back in 2008 when Dino Rossi and Christine Gregoire were competing for governor, Dino, the Republican, came to town. At the time, I didn’t know anything about him or Gregoire or even what the difference was between a Republican and Democrat. But he came and walked around and shook hands, and people were avidly pro-Dino after that. Even my mom who is a Democrat was pro-Dino, just because he showed up. It’s sad that such a small thing could bring such support.
In a more somber way, I look at the 2016 election and the places that Trump showed up where Hillary didn’t. Is he a con man? Yes, and many people who voted for him likely suspected that. But he showed up. Maybe they only put 10 percent faith in him, but that’s better than the 0 percent faith they had in the candidate who didn’t even come to town.
I remember what that felt like, being pro-Dino simply because he took the time to stop in. Years later I was working as a valet in Seattle, and Dino came to the restaurant where I worked. I mentioned meeting him at the fair in Republic, and we chatted briefly. By then I knew I wasn’t a Republican and I knew he was, but it still brought back a feel-good moment – a moment when my community felt like anyone at all was looking in our direction.
Tarico: But are rural Trump voters really capable of changing their minds?
Poore: That is the wrong question. Some are, some aren’t. But as a matter of principle, if you believe in the things we progressives say we believe—you are cherry picking this one situation where you are allowing yourself to be a total asshole. When we look at other marginalized groups, even some that are similarly culturally conservative, like some Muslim immigrants, we are happy to be the bastion of kindness and compassion. But in this case, we convince ourselves that our contempt is justified and righteous because we want to believe it’s impossible to make any progress with conservative voters. And that kind of attitude does make progress harder because it reinforces and exacerbates the current adversarial relationship between the left and the right.
For me, the point of being a progressive is to be better – to strive to be better people, to build a better world. If we say we’ll cut this corner here, we’ll cut that one, if we say these people don’t count, how does that square with our values? This is a marginalized group—rural Americans—certainly marginalized economically and infrastructure-wise, and in many places victimized by conservative policy and ignorant of the ways they’ve been victimized. These are people who have been sold a raw deal by some very sophisticated, well-funded salesmen. We progressives tell ourselves that we are moral, compassionate beings. Then we look at these folks and the best we can come up with is Fuck them!? It’s tragic.
Tarico: Are you angry at fellow progressives?
Poore: Not really. I’m just disappointed.
Do we want to live in a society that is less thoughtful and less empathetic? Are we going to pick and choose where we cut corners morally—where we cut some people out? We chase simple answers because they feel good emotionally. We give in to that without actually thinking about what, in the long run, will yield the most positive results in the society that we claim to care about building.
Tarico: When you say, “the most positive results in society we claim to care about,” what do you mean?
Poore: The greatest reduction of suffering possible; but change is such a slow process, and meaningful change is an even slower process.
There is no good faith left at a national level, and so the way you have to establish that good faith is through cooperative efforts. If we can agree on one issue and get it done, it builds trust; and then over time you work on more things and eventually progress—that is the dream.
Tarico: I recently met a group of Montana progressives and conservatives who seem to be living that dream, through a process and organization called the Blackfoot Challenge that they’ve spent 25 years building together to protect their watershed, way of life, and ability to live in community with each other. It can be done.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
It seems to me that rural folk don’t have any room at all to complain about being looked down on by liberals. Conservatives do and have for years listened to and been schooled by hate-mongers like Limbaugh, FOX, and am radio hate-pastors, and have energetically poured vitriol and contempt on liberals, calling us “Libtards,” “Demorats,” Communists, Socialists, and anti-American. Conservative Christians are taught to believe that liberals are necessarily evil, and they blame them for all their troubles and vote Republican against their own economic interest, and blame liberals for all that’s wrong in the world and in their lives. Frankly, I’m tired of being told that liberals need to understand rural folk and try to accommodate their worldview and bring peace to the land. The rural worldview is based on a Bronze Age religion which rural folk are captive to. This is America, a secular nation. Rural folk have no right to demand that liberals be captive to their Bronze Age beliefs too.
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I think we are all tired of it. It’s super frustrating to have to deal with the intransigence and with the disproportionate power of places with low population density. I still think it is worth challenging ourselves to rise above. I think of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as the models in this case.
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The other thing is that the corporate media causes us to become disconnected from those around us. We need to stop thinking of people in terms of the stereotypes portrayed on tv and in newspapers. Poor rural counties have some of the lowest voter turnout, because people feel disfranchised and because polling stations are far away. It is unfortunate to blame these people. If we want to understand the mindset that put Trump into power, all we have to do is look around us and get to know our neighbors better.
The largest and strongest segment of Trump support came from the lower middle class, not the working poor. Where are most of Trump voters concentrated? In the same place most voters in general are concentrated. It’s urban areas. We’ve been a majority urban population for more than a century now and that goes for both parties. Poor whites have higher urbanization rates than poor blacks and Hispanics, something hard to realize if you’re not from the Deep South and Southwest. The majority of blacks weren’t urbanized until the 1960s or 1970s, and Hispanics remain heavily rural.
Plus, don’t forget that Trump, not Clinton, won the white woman vote. So, those white women who work at the office with you, along with the middle class urbanites and suburbanites who live all around you, many of them voted Trump as many of them vote for Republicans every election. The majority of conservatives and right-wingers are not isolated in rural areas, although they might be isolated in particular suburbs. If your’e looking for the most racist Americans, suburbs are a main place to look. Suburbs have had a history of exclusion of minorities, such as Levittown where Bill O’Reilly grew up. I spent part of my childhood in a wealthier suburb of Chicago that was a sundown town and had a mostly Jewish population.
Many of the rural areas, such as in coal country, have been strongholds of organized labor and the Democratic Party for a long long time. There was one Eastern Kentucky county that, prior to going to Trump, had gone to every Democratic candidate since the Civil War. Trump didn’t win that county. Rather, Clinton was the first Democrat to lose it. Like so many other poor whites, they voted for Obama. Interestingly, in rural areas, Trump in some states won support from Hispanics. If not for minority voters such as Cubans and Haitians, Trump might not have taken key states like Florida, though in that case most of them probably not rural. As always, the world is complicated.
By the way, if anyone wants to see a breakdown and analysis of the demographic data from last campaign season and election, I have various posts where I go into the details. I find it fascinating, to dig down past superficial narratives into what is actually going on. It seems most Americans still don’t know this data and are still being riled up (divide and conquer) by mainstream frames.
Thought provoking, as usual. I, also, grew up on a farm. I have a number of high school classmates who are very conservative (as well as some who are very progressive). This essay is another spur for me to react to those with whom I disagree with a little more empathy and patience. That’s something I’ve needed to work on for a long time. It’s SO difficult when critical policies are affected by what seems like ignorance, gullibility, and lack of critical thinking on the part of voters and an authoritarian, sociopathic, narcissistic leader who has life-long con artist skills.
As a retired psychologist, I fully agree that we don’t change minds by attacking people. The necessity of attacking ideas without attacking the people who hold them is very challenging.
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I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did grow up in many farm states. I was born in a small factory town at the edge of Appalachia in Ohio. And I spent my most formative years in Iowa where I moved back to and still live. Iowa actually is a somewhat progressive state that in recent decades has mostly voted for Democratic presidential candidates: Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton twice, Al Gore in 2000, and Barack Obama twice. Yet it went to Donald Trump in 2016. My suspicion, as in many other places, it was more that Hillary Clinton lost than Trump won.
About Trump supporters in farm states, I recently went back to the town of my birth where my mother still has a close friend. She and her husband grew up on farms before moving into that small factory town. They both absolutely love Trump. They are rather typical of the broad middle swath of Trump supporters in being slightly above the national average in both higher education and family income but not far above. They are part of the once upwardly mobile lower middle class professionals, now older, who find themselves struggling to maintain their middle class status and lifestyle. Even so, their standard of living is reasonably good, even if their future is less certain in aging.
This Ohio couple are nice people and they are respectable professionals in their community (she was a real estate agent and at one point he was the mayor). Like them, my parents also are lifelong Republicans, but there is a difference. My parents did grow up in working class environments, though not on farms. What my parents had was a more worldly and cosmopolitan experience of places where they lived and worked. The demographic that Trump didn’t win were the most highly educated, such as my father who was a professor. So, my parents are a different kind of Republican. Still, 44% of Trump supporters have college education, as compared to the national average of 30%. But having a college degree these days doesn’t necessarily mean much, even for those who made it into the middle class.
I could viscerally sense the difference in visiting my childhood hometown. It actually is a prosperous place, relatively speaking. There are several factories in the immediate area and, even if not thriving as much as in the past, the downtown still has businesses with a local yuppy class to support a coffee house and specialty stores. Still, it has a small town feel to it and I could sense how culturally isolated it is from the rest of the country. Living there and watching Fox News, I can sense why Trump has an appeal. This was the kind of place that Hillary Clinton did not visit during her campaign. Yet recently, some of Trump’s family visited nearby. If nothing else, Trump has made sure that people like this felt acknowledged, as if their lives matter.
It’s not about being poor or rural. This couple is middle class and they’ve lived in that nice town for many decades. But there is a certain working class rural mentality that maybe seeps even into a prosperous factory town like that, surrounded as it is by farms and populated by those who grew up on farms.
It’s SO challenging. I fail at it regularly.
The “rural” mindset discussed by Poore is not limited to rural America. It’s become ubiquitous. It’s just a metaphor for what some have described as the “low information voter.” Low might be very generous.
How does one even begin to reason and communicate with someone who is grossly adverse to learning and accepting fact? Have you ever attempted to convince a flat earther that the Earth was round or a moon landing denialist who believes the landing was just a clever Hollywood special effects trick? The plain truth is you cannot, And if you try, you to typically find that for the most part, you’ve been wasting precious time, and causing your blood pressure to approach concern levels.
Reasoned, considered, intellectually explored dialogue is anathema to the Drumpf cultist. They simply do not have what it takes to engage in well thought out and knowledgeable dialogue even about some of the most fundamental issues that impact our daily lives. The typical trumper, for example, decries the loss of good paying, American jobs but finds no irony in their love affair with WallyMart. Then they vote for a con artist who tells them that at the snap of his finger he’s “bringing all the manufacturing jobs back.” They instantly believed the moron!
Furthermore, reasoned, nuanced, and intellectually rigorous debates immediately puts them in a very defensive (and quite often, hostile) mindset whereby you get called a liberal elitist who’s part of the “deep state” and promptly dispatched. Try reasoning with a Qanon member. You’ll need to schedule a professional mental health counseling session after about an hour exchange.
Remember: Every Trumper has a high dose of Qanon in them.
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Those kind of Trump supporters do exist. But I’d make several points. Such Trump extremists don’t represent the average person who voted for Trump. In earlier polls, the majority of Trump supporters admitted that they didn’t believe what Trump said or that he’d keep his promises. They weren’t acting on ignorance and naivete, at least not all of them.
My own theory is that turning to Trump was an act of desperation in a failed and corrupt political system, the equivalent of throwing a grenade into a bunker. The only thing that was guaranteed was that Trump would cause damage and that is what they were hoping for. They had their reasons for having lost hope in the possibility of the system being reformed from within.
After decades of weakening democracy and worsening economy, some Americans saw Trump as the lesser evil, as compared to the Clintons. Keep in mind that many of these were stalwart Democrats in the past, back when labor unions were strong and before the Clinton Democrats betrayed the working class. A significant portion of them even voted for Obama, but Obama ended up being a major disappointment to so many.
Despite all the lies, Trump was being honest in calling DC a swamp. It’s true that Trump is part of that swamp, but then again so are the Clintons. That is how Trump could speak with authority, as he is an insider in the world of power, specifically among the Clinton Democrats. Trump used to regularly donate money to the Clintons and other Democrats. His family and the Clinton’s family has been close for a really long time.
Anyway, yes, it’s true there are plenty of low information voters. That is not merely a personality flaw, as it is true of most of the population across the political spectrum. It indicates a failed education system and failed journalism. I’ve been around Trump supporters. Some are as ignorant as can be while others are well informed. The data shows that Trump supporters, at 44% college educated, are way above the national average of 30%. Most of these people are middle class.
Sure, Democrats disproportionately get the most well educated but Democrats also disproportionately get the least well educated. Democrats get more from the extremes while Republicans get more from the middle. This is true of IQ as well. So, Democrats get more than their fair share of low information voters.
Even among the well educated, I’ve found many Clinton Democrats know little about American history or even the Clinton’s political record. So, how are they going to make an informed vote? Well, they’re not. Our system doesn’t encourage people to be well-informed. That is true for both parties.
We are all low information voters, unless we go to great effort to inform ourselves. That is because we are all born ignorant. And if you rely on formal education and mainstream media to inform you, you are out of luck.
This creates not only a general lack of good information mixed up with plenty of misinformation and some outright disinformation. It promotes a sense of disconnection. Not only do most Americans know little about their own society but also little about their fellow citizens.
Consider the kind of demographic and polling data I’ve been talking about in my comments here. Do most Democrats and most Republicans know about any of it? No. That is because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of either party, doesn’t fit into the narrative of the corporate media.
Do most Trump supporters know that he used illegal immigrants in his own business projects? Probably not. Do most Clinton supporters know that, as Secretary of State, Hillary suppressed wages in Haiti which is why Haitian-Americans in Florida voted for Trump and helped him win the election? Of course not.
Such information doesn’t fit the bullshit rhetoric that the elite all across the board uses to manipulate Americans. Divide and conquer is highly effective, and it is accomplished by restricting information while spinning false and misleading narratives.
Good luck to Devin. I identify with him as a progressive humanist and I hope he does go back to Washigton state to spread the good word. I think the difference in what’s being discussed here vs politics is that true progressive humanists make poor politicians. I wonder if we should even try politics. We should stick to humanism and try and work together locally on local issues, politics be damned. I think people are confused if they think big D Democrats are ‘progressive’. They’re just politicians, capitalists, elitists who want the same stuff as Republican party supporters want: Ever more while paying ever less. Hillary Clinton could just as easily be a a Repub as a Dem and I can quite see why many Americans did not want to vote for her even if it meant shooting themselves in the foot! I think we should build a third force outside politics and work on local issues without mentioning politics. Possible in America? I think yes – like Valerie’s “it can be done.”
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You bring up an interesting point and an important perspective. What does it mean to genuinely be a progressive humanist in a society, economy, and political system that isn’t always supportive of and conducive to progressive humanism? How do we go about that in an effective manner? You might be right, that politics is not the way to do it. I like the idea of a third force outside of politics. I wonder what that could look like.
Although in a farm state and surrounded by farms, I presently live in a small liberal college town. It is easier to see how progressive humanism works here. The local UU membership, for example, is able to act locally in the community without the need of being an overtly political organization. But how could this work in other kinds of communities, specifically where there isn’t as great of a concentration of those on the political left?
I’m thinking we will need to push for cultural change. Some of the American founders observed that the American Revolution was only possible because there was a revolution of the mind that happened first. A similar thing happened with the Populist movement that prepared the way for the Progressive era. I remember a quote from a history on Populism where the changes, primarily originating at the local level, were described as a wildfire spreading across the country.
We will know we’re making an impact when progressive humanism is not an isolated phenomenon in liberal areas but is taken up by the broader American society. Radical thought became popular among the lower classes in the past. It was precisely the poor and disenfranchised who demanded change and led the way in the Revolutionary and Populist eras. Only after movements had formed and change was in the air (following protests and revolts) that elites began joining in by co-opting it and taking credit for it. Then and only then did it become overtly political through official actions.
This is what gets lost in the mainstream historical accounts. It is rarely told about the American Revolution how there were decades of uprisings that directly and sometimes violently challenged the local ruling elites. Likewise, the Civil Rights movement is taught in schools as if it came out of no where, and what is left out is the prior half century of organized movements and race wars during which blacks fought back but most of it happened at the local level. People begin talking and organizing in their communities, begin to educate and inform themselves, and that is where the struggle begins for human rights and freedom.
Here is a concrete example of what I’m talking about. In the Populist era, farmers and factory workers started their own local organizations. The printed their own newspapers and other material. The gathered money to buy books as part of lending libraries. They studied and analyzed the documents and data they could get their hands on. They took control and gained a sense of empowerment in taking concrete actions through informed plans. They didn’t wait for the federal and state governments to pass bills and enforce laws. They stood up for their rights, started co-ops, and used their numbers to protect their own interests, such as using guns to protect farms from foreclosure.
Maybe we’ve forgotten what progressive humanism could look like. Radical imagination has been constrained by mainstream rhetoric that tells us what is possible and allowable. Without radical imagination, there can be no moral action and no democratic force, and so no there would be no public demand and political will. After that, politicians will follow where the public leads.
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That is maybe why politics has failed. Progressive humanism can’t have any moral force without radical leftism. That is what used to exist at the local level, what inspired organizing and action within communities, churches, and workplaces.
There are those who complain about poor whites and rural whites being the problem. But those doing the complaining are part of the problem. We’ve lost a radical moral vision, as once existed when the left-wing was strong. That is what changed. These working class populations once were the site of radical leftism: trade unionism, communism, socialism, Marxism, anarchosyndicalism, worker co-ops, farmer co-ops, etc. Many of these Trump supporters, their neighbors, their parents and grandparents used to be involved in radical left-wing politics.
But that was also a time when, out of fear of revolt, the political elites were forced to pay attention (FDR made this argument in why the political elite must accept reform or else face revolt). Not that long ago, the Democrats were known as the party of the people, of the working class. Factory towns and coal country was solidly unionized and a stronghold of the Democratic Party. Without this moral force of left-wing populism, progressive humanism becomes impotent and toothless. And at the same time, the moral vacuum makes a reactionary backlash inevitable. Blaming the victims of a failed economy and failed political system is the opposite of helpful.
We need to remember what progressive humanism can mean and what it used to mean when it was an actual threat to power. You want to know what effective progressive humanism looks like? Just study American history: War of Regulation, American Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, Coal Strike of 1902, Pullman Strike, Great Depression Farm Revolts, Battle of Athens, Civil Rights Movement, Black Panther Rainbow Coalition, etc. Just to name a few. None of those required waiting for the permission of distant political elites to allow change.
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Yeah, you have way more of the fascinating history (I’m not American, just lived there for a year back in ’73). What I’m thinking doesn’t involve pushing for change or running for office. I’m thinking of a longer, slower, very local working-together on ONE (say, as a start) very local problem and working with anyone who wants to help, while carefully ignoring – almost ‘banning’ – any political leanings from this little movement that’s solving one local problem.
It’s almost, in fact, an opting out of politics (which won’t please everyone – it’s an alternative option I’m suggesting, not a fix).
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I can’t speak for other countries. Some societies have stronger cultures of trust and traditions of democracy, and so are more able to seek reform from within, whether at the local or national level. But that has never described the US, sadly. We Americans tend to let problems get really bad, often with lot of elite oppression and reactionary backlash, and then repressed radicalism and sometimes violence eventually erupts forcing change. Then and only then great moments of progress are made possible. That has been the American pattern that has repeated every generation since the colonial era. Many have noted this about us. Winston Churchill said that, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
It’s a preference of melodramatic change over gradual reform. The ruling elite here are extremely dominant, as compared to some societies. Most of them don’t seem to understand that preventing slow change makes radical change inevitable. But there are some who get it. Nick Hanauer has warned about this and directed his message to his fellow plutocrats. He used to work with Jeff Bezos at Amazon and he said that Bezos will fight any attempts to restrain his corporate power, unless someone pointed a gun at his head. Hanauer, a rich white guy who is a Democrat like Bezos, really said this. I referred to this kind of argument above, although I misattributed it to FDR. I meant to name Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote some pieces about socialism, arguing that the elite should take reformers seriously because if they didn’t the revolutionaries would surely gain power. So, TR when he was elected sought massive reforms, of the scale rarely seen in US history. That might be why the US was able to avoid the kind of authoritarianism that happened to other countries in that early 20th century period. He was one of the rare wise leaders. TR was an elitist but he also was a progressive.
Unfortunately, we can’t rely upon such a wise enlightened aristocrat or paternalistic technocrat to save us, as we might be waiting a long time. That brings us to your point, that in the failure of politics we should turn to the non-political, specifically at the local level. That is interesting for the reason it is the opposite of the past when centralized governments were weaker. In the American Progressive Era and in the period leading up to it, there had been much community organizing and activism, much of it not overtly political, but it was the failure at the local level that caused people to turn toward larger political actions in state and federal government (e.g., blacks experiencing oppression in their communities where they were kept disenfranchised). So, it’s complex and I can’t speak for what any of this means for those in other countries.
About the US, I just so happened to come across a book on this topic that I have at home: A Fierce Discontent by Michael McGerr. It’s about the Progressive movement from 1870 to 1920. It’s interesting to read about it. What motivated people wasn’t usually politics, per se. They were simply trying to improve their lives, seeking rights and freedom, but this inevitably has political implications. Still, it was more complicated than politics as we think of it today, as there were thousands of civic organizations and local parties across the country that served different purposes. Everything was more direct and local back then. Progressivism was a broader vision, in its original form, and so included a broader range of people and interests, from conservatives to liberals to radicals, from the religious to atheists and secularists, and much else. It’s not only the average American who doesn’t know about this history for neither does the average progressive these days know about it either, which brings us back to the issue of informed voters and an informed citizenry.
In our historical amnesia, the horizon of our imagination has become constrained. We see this in the confusion, disinformation, and false narratives about voting demographics. Divide and conquer works because of worsening economic inequality and economic segregation (see Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level; & Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder). What is forgotten or rather what was never learned is how central once was the Progressive vision, far from being limited to the economically secure and comfortable liberal class. These days, progressivism has become associated with what some refer to as first world problems, in that they are concerns limited to the middle-to-upper classes. Consider issues like gay marriage, transgender bathrooms, etc which aren’t unimportant issues, but this should be put into the context that the vast majority of the LGBTQ individuals are in the lower classes, not the liberal class, and so their priorities are far different in still struggling with more basic problems of survival like low pay, unemployment, homelessness, and such.
The present progressive movement largely doesn’t speak to or for these people. Instead, many self-identified progressives dismiss these people as Trump supporters, even though most of them didn’t vote for Trump since most of the lower classes (white and minority, rural and urban) don’t vote at all for anyone in any election. Yet these populations once were the backbone of the Progressive movement. Depending on how old they are, their parents or grandparents or great grandparents were, in many cases, old school Progressives. These kinds of people probably still would be progressives, if progressivism today offered them something of value, something other than empty promises. Earlier last century and back into the century before, Progressivism was about bread and butter issues, about jobs and communities. None of that has to explicitly take the form of politics, but these people need to see real hope in their lives which means concrete action toward progress. There needs to be solidarity, a sense of shared problems and concerns, a shared society that unites us.
It is interesting that your suggestion is basically to go back to the roots of the original Progressive movement. It began as a set of primarily local concerns and actions that offered a third force outside of national politics. It was highly effective, until the world war era when political and corporate power became increasingly oppressive with a new form of ultra-nationalism and corporate imperialism.
I was reading Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire. He pointed out that Mark Twain, at the height of his career, turned to anti-imperialism and found that no one would publish his anti-imperialist views. Combined with silencing of alternative voices, even among respectable figures like Jane Addams, Progressivism quickly became dismissed with public and private propaganda in portraying it as communist and anti-American. It was the lack of power at the national level that made Progressivism so easy to target and destroy. But that isn’t exactly the fault of Progressives, as war-mongering is always used by authoritarians to enforce conformity and to punish those who dare challenge them.
It makes one wonder how Progressives could gain leverage now that authoritarian rule is even greater. Centralized power and concentrated wealth will always be anti-progressive, and that is practically the definition of politics these days, especially in the US. Even local politics has become dominated by the national parties and corporate money, which wasn’t true earlier last century when small regional third parties controlled local politics. If progressivism is to regain its former glory, we would have to find some way to return to the conditions that made it possible in the first place. That is in line with your own idea.
Though local third forces failed in the past, that might not have been inevitable. If we knew what caused that failure, we might be able to reverse or counter-act it. The question is how do we re-create some semblance of what existed before after such dramatic change in modern society. When the Progressive movement was powerful, it was at a time when small tight-knit communities were the center of society. These communities had strong local economies and thriving downtowns, ethnic churches and neighborhoods, numerous local newspapers and civic institutions (to give a concrete example, in 1900, 90% of the US population was still producing their own food). That social order was the heart of Progressivism. Now, self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ mock people who live in small communities.
My own perspective, as I’ve repeated, is the importance of knowledge and imagination, both of which would’ve been important in the rise of Progressivism. There needs to be, as there once was, real moral force behind it. The Democratic Party betrayed and turned away from progressivism. Sanders, in many ways, was to the right of old school Progressives. He certainly was no where near as far left as FDR. Yet the Clinton Democrats attacked Sanders as a radical left-winger, even as public polling showed that Sander’s positions were right in the center of majority opinion. The DNC elite were able to get away with this, I’d argue, because of the loss of knowledge and imagination (this is capitalist realism in how Nancy Pelosi argues, “We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.” And what she really means is we are neoliberal corporatists, we have most of the wealth and power, and there is nothing you can do about it.)
This opened the door to the reactionary right-wing. There is a hunger for progressivism and that isn’t going away. Steven Bannon, a knowledgeable student of history, understood that there were many similarities between our situation now and the situation earlier last century. He was the architect behind Trump’s campaign rhetoric. How Trump won was largely by using progressive rhetoric and promises: make America great again, bring jobs back, rebuild infrastructure, etc. Bannon took that directly from the history books on the Progressive movement. Progressivism, as you point out, doesn’t necessarily have to be political. But when there is a demand for progressivism, the politicians who will win are those who speak like a progressive, even if it is bullshit. Calling oneself a progressive is meaningless, unless it is backed by a progressive vision that is part of the public debate.
The fact of the matter is most Americans, often including the majority of Republican voters, are to the left of the elite in both parties. Leave political labels out of it and it’s surprising how, in polls, even Republicans will agree in supporting policies that the Clinton Democrats and corporate media portrays as being too far left. Obamacare ended up being healthcare insurance reform, not healthcare reform, and the main thing it accomplished was ensuring big profits to big insurance. What most Americans wanted was far to the left of Obamacare and precisely what the DNC elite refused to even allow on the table for public debate: single payer (Medicare for all), public option, etc.
Maybe progressive humanists should focus on the local in seeking a third force. But we must acknowledge the reality that ‘progressivism’ as a larger vision is not owned by self-identified progressives alone. It is part of our national heritage, at least here in the US. Progressivism is going to be in the mix of politics. It’s just a matter of what role it will play and who will use it to their advantage. If genuine progressives drop the ball, reactionary demagogues will pick it up and run with it. That doesn’t mean your own idea is wrong. The force of power behind national politics maybe does need to be local and, as was true in the past, national politics will follow where the public leads when the public becomes a force to be reckoned with. Politics is the end, not the means nor the motivation.
Obsessing about politics would be pointless and counterproductive, if we don’t have an informed public inspired by radical imagination and a sense of local empowerment and engagement. But first we have to know what went wrong. How did those who once might have voted for Progressives like William Jennings Bryan and FDR now vote for reactionaries like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? How did New Deal Democrats like Ronald Reagan become right-wing Republicans in re-envisioning progressivism as an optimistic neocon imperialism and neoliberal corporatism? Progressive humanists in particular and progressive-leaning folks in general need to do some soul-searching, and they might find some hope and inspiration by looking back at the history of Progressivism. The most central point to keep in mind might be that the original Progressivism was never a narrowly partisan and ideological movement. That doesn’t have to mean opting out of politics, but it would require re-imagining politics.
“What aboutism” is a salient characteristic of the low to no information Trumpista.
What aboutism is an insidious and highly infectious disease. Once it manages to weasel its way into one’s cranial cavity, it quickly goes to work plugging up neural pathways in both brainial hemispheres.
I always encourage my friends to be on constant guard against the invasion of what aboutism in their thinking. It gets to be very damaging to brain cells in a very short time. Before you even realize it, what aboutism develops into full blown Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.
I think what would be more revealing is to stop asking rural conservatives what liberals, progressives and democrats don’t get about them and the supposed beauty of living in small isolated communities but to start asking rural conservatives what they don’t understand about what it takes civically, ethically, and psychologically for liberals, progressives and democrats to live in relative harmony in spaces that have every diversity and perversity you can name. If they can understand that then they can understand (1) why liberals, progressives and democrats lean toward government as a mediator of sorts and (2) why liberals, progressives and democrats believe that a certain level of equality/equity and access provides stability and even peace.
I might agree about not obsessing over rural conservatives. After all, the vast majority of conservatives live in the same kinds of places other Americans live in cities, metropolises, and suburbs. That is true as well of most poor conservatives. But here is the thing. Poor conservatives and poor people in general don’t vote much. Elections are much more often determined by the middle class, the demographic that was the largest and strongest sector of support for Trump.
There is a difference, though, where middle class conservatives and liberals are concentrated. Middle class conservatives are disproportionately found in suburbs. Understand the difference between a suburban areas and urban areas, and then you’ll understand the divide. Suburbs, for example, are infamous for their low diversity, often intentionally through racist sundown practices. See the suburb that Bill O’Reilly grew up in, Levittown, is the most well known of the sundown suburbs. In general, suburbs are known for their racial prejudice, as seen in various data.